As the high-spirits of Halloween fade into the distance for another year, a very real, eternal sense of dread lingers on. Our continued, ravenous consumption of titillating mass-media is stripping away whatever last vestiges of human agency we had, while leaving us unwilling or unable to speak truth to power. As the elitist jamboree of COP26 inevitably fails to turn out any meaningful measures for halting climate change, while spoon-feeding the 99% of the planet who will actually be impacted by it managed expectations and the same old ‘grave warnings,’ it seems like an ideal time to revisit Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.
Warning: The following article features references to sexual violence depicted in the film.
When people talk about horror cinema, one of the prevalent themes regards the supposed ‘loss of control’ of one’s own body. Many an essay will say that the key element of the fear that creeps up your spine during a zombie, werewolf, or vampire film is that any one of us could lose our essence, and live as some supernatural beast without control. Beyond this surface-level transformation, or the literal loss of human emotions, this horror – conscious or otherwise – strikes at our ideological core.
In American Werewolf in London, we feel uncomfortable viewing a werewolf transform in the middle of a crowded porn-theatre, having ignored warnings that he will kill again. We look on in similar distress during Dawn of the Dead, as a shambling member of the undead slumps against the glass of a mall door, whimpering like a lost child. It is not the threat these creatures present which moves us so. I would argue that on a deeper level, it is more that we are seeing people fulfilling an ideological requirement which is also expected of us. They must consume at all costs, while still actually retaining something of themselves, of their humanity.
That’s so troubling to us, because unless we make a concerted effort to eliminate that behaviour in our own lives, we can be caring individuals who love our families and friends, but we can still be complicit in some of society’s greatest social ills.
Now moving on to Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, in this context: without being supernatural, it is most definitely a horror. The nightmares on screen might be entirely human, but like any good horror, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infamously repulsive critique of fascism will still leave you looking over your shoulder for weeks after you see it. That is not a cheap and distasteful joke derived from the anal motif of the film either. The film will mark you, and it will leave you viewing not just those around you with distrust – but also yourself.
Essay on fascism
Needless to say, viewing any film on fascism should be unpleasant, but no film before or after can really claim to have hit the levels of revulsion that Pasolini provoked here. Needless to say, a film loosely derived from The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade was always going to be a grotesque, sexually disturbing experience – but Pasolini’s reimagining still goes to great lengths to gross out its audience. But like the transformation sequence of American Werewolf, this is the external scare, the superficial element of the terror we feel. There is something far more horrific going on.
In 1944, in the Republic of Salò (the Fascist-occupied portion of Italy) four wealthy men of power – the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate and the President – agree to marry each other’s daughters as the first step in a debauched ritual. Recruiting four teenage boys to act as guards, and four young “stud” soldiers, who are chosen because of their large penises, they then kidnap nine young men and nine young women and take them to a palace near Marzabotto, where the horrors begin.
Sexual torture, including extensive acts of anal rape, and the notable sequences in which the captives are forced to dine on faeces, takes place for the remainder of the film, without reprieve. Despite this relentless assault on the viewers clearly leading to an uneasy feeling, however, the key to the on-screen horror is not so much the violence as the placidity of the victims in the face of their torment.
One of the eternally missed points about the nature of fascism is that it does not require monsters to perpetuate it. Like any other governmental system, it requires ideological investment from its victims. While it takes place in a microcosm, then, Salò shows us how fascism can maintain control in a nation, via people’s ignorance of their own ideological behaviour.
Specifically, Pasolini intended to depict what he described as an “anarchy of power,” in which sex acts and physical abuse functioned as metaphor for the relationship between power and its subjects. Really there can be no rational explanation for the exercising of power over the masses by any elite and, while the horrors which unfold in the film give us a more extreme example of this than we are used to, it should not be regarded as a caricature. The nature of power in a nightmare fascist dystopia is derived from the failures of a liberal past.
The silence of the tortured subjects in the face of what is being done to them is one of the most chilling elements of the film – but it is also something which is sourced from an atomised society preceding the brutality depicted. Pasolini’s depiction of the victims in such a manner was intended to demonstrate the physical body “as a commodity…the annulment of the personality of the Other,” the individuals have learned, in part by the endless sale of their labour, their bodies, their life energy, within capitalism, to treat their physicality as something which is at the very least for hire and, at worst, at the beck and call of the powerful.
They have learned this lesson to such an extent that, rather than collectively rebel, most of the victims systematically betray each other. The lines between perpetrators and victims are blurred then, as victims perpetuate their own torment, working individually against one another to strengthen their own positions. It is what they know from the “I’m alright Jack” culture of individualism that is prevalent in modern society, and it is something which fascism, with its eternal insistence that it is a violent meritocracy, where the right individual can rise through the ranks if they are appropriately brutal, plays directly into.
The film’s final shot is of two young soldiers, who had witnessed and collaborated in all the atrocities, dancing a simple waltz together; one asks the name of the other’s girlfriend back at home. I think this is the most overt, on the nose aspect of Pasolini’s message. These are still human beings, they still do the things that are perceived as socially normal, they can even be lovers, and yet they see no contradiction between that individual life and the institutionalised misery that they mete out.
Returning to my point about horror then, a different dimension of repulsion is added to this film when we realise that this could be us. We can be conscientious, caring and even socially responsible on a private level – but as a collective we can sleep walk into the Republic of Salò without batting an eyelid. We can be ourselves, and yet we can maintain a system of utter barbarity.
Now I know we are all trained to think our present society is inherently different, and I am in no position to suggest that liberal democracy is anything like as bad as the obscenity which can be committed within fascism. However, the seeds of that society are buried deep in this one, and it could well sprout forth from our modern world.
One of the things that strikes me most about Salò is its completely prescient view on the media of the 21st Century. Accompanying the proceedings at the palace are four middle-aged prostitutes, also collaborators, whose job it is to recount stories of their own oppression. The horrors which have befallen them by men such as those in this palace are taken and transformed into supposedly arousing titillation, and rather than being a grim truth which prompts action, they serve to encourage future abuse.
In a world where politicians routinely lie to us, it has become normal and their lack of accountability in the face of their blatant negligence and incompetence goes unchecked. We complain about it, even mock it, but ultimately we are willing to enjoy it as a joke at the end of the night. The Conservative Government’s policies can lead to the death of thousands of disabled people in the UK, while Donald Trump and Joe Biden can bring the world back to the brink of nuclear war, but most of us find it all too easy to lapse into a habit of watching them being ‘destroyed’ by late night TV hosts.
Meanwhile, the whole band of them can cavort about Glasgow, falling asleep or coughing on David Attenborough at COP26, fiddling while the planet burns, and the worst they can expect is some spicy memes labelling them “senile fuckwits” or “Etonian cockwombles.” To take any kind of more meaningful action would almost be to deny us the pleasure of seeing their tyranny mocked.
We live our lives as a perpetual Daily Show audience, ravenously devouring the faecal matter of each Presidency, reconstituted as a joke, a consumable. To an extent, I am convinced this is why there will not be a fourth Human Centipede (one of the franchises that must on some levels have been inspired by Salò in the decades since). The administrations of Trump, Biden, Johnson, Putin, Bolsonaro, etc. which exist in our nightmarish unreality are the only way to top the director’s previous projects – having managed to convince the world’s media consumers to endlessly gorge themselves on shit, one way or another.