Pasolini's Salo: A film that bleeds onto other films

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Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom
  • Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom
I'm grateful to professor Mary Patten for introducing Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom last week at the Gene Siskel Film Center (it screened as part of her ongoing film-and-lecture series "Revolution in the Air"). Patten contextualized the movie in terms of European history and Pasolini's career as a public intellectual, explaining how Salo built upon the pessimistic view of modern society he introduced in his essays. Not that this made the film any easier to watch—if anything, Salo feels even more despairing when you understand the motivation behind it. The scenes of torture represent the systematic dehumanization of the powerless by the powerful—ultimately it's the systematic nature that gets to you rather than the torture itself. Pasolini's artful compositions, which draw from centuries of European painting and frequently organize human figures in mathematical combinations, are purposely deprived of spontaneity; the dialogue, which references numerous philosophical texts, imposes yet another sense of order. Here is the hideous culmination of Western civilization, Pasolini dares to suggest. As Patten noted in her introduction, the film envisions a system so complete that the only way out of it is death.

Gary Indiana, in an essay he wrote about Salo for the Criterion Collection, describes the movie as "unsurpassable." A week after attending the Film Center revival, I'm inclined to agree. The movie has an insidious way of situating itself next to anything you watch afterward, making most other images seem horribly naive or downright sick. Just a few days ago I saw a commentator on CNN pushing his interpretation of a recent news item and preemptively criticizing anyone who might disagree with him. I couldn't help but think of the narrators in Salo, telling tales of horrible behavior before a silent drawing room audience and inspiring the torturers to commit more acts of brutality. (It's possible that Pasolini intended these sequences as critiques of television; he claimed the scenes of coprophagy in Salo represented his feelings about fast food.)

This Is Martin Bonner
  • This Is Martin Bonner
On Saturday night I saw an Australian movie called Hail at the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison. That movie culminates with a graphic scene of torture, showing an ex-convict take revenge on the drug dealer who was instrumental in his girlfriend's death. Much of the audience walked out during that scene, but I watched it unfazed—the violence seemed so human, so old-fashioned in its disorganization. Yesterday at the fest I saw an American independent drama called This Is Martin Bonner, about a 60-ish divorced man restarting his life with a new job in a new town. It's a touching character study about good people who are marginalized in today's economy but manage to preserve their humanity. Watching it with Pasolini's images of dehumanization still fresh in mind, I found the characters' triumphs impossibly moving.

As appreciative as I am to have seen Salo, I'm looking forward to when it no longer hangs over everything I watch. It lays bare the fundamental problem of civilization: the corrupting influence of power and its destructive impact on human affairs. At this point, every other serious film feels like a gloss or an elaboration on this crucial theme.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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