SALO is an allegory for Mussolini’s rape of his own country and through the humorless debasing violence and sadism whispers a prescient warning for all of humanity, everywhere, anytime.
The film is set in an isolated Italian villa which is ruled by four depraved men who usher in the age of the spiritual apocalypse: the repression of religious acts is not what makes this ordeal immoral…it’s the debauchery that erases the victim’s essence, that voids their humanity, their suffering no more important than that of a crawling insect, recognized for only the physiological thrill it imparts upon their anatomy. These men are the little gods of their own world, recruiting a chosen few who help to control and pervert their young and delicate prey. This villa is haunted by the spirit of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, et al, where absolute power is wielded by criminals who torture and taunt helpless victims for pleasure, where the laws are changed without notice, the punishment swift, brutal, inescapable, where the inmates have no chance to survive intact…if at all.
Director Pier Paolo Pasolini films mostly in medium and long shots that helps to emotionally subtract the viewer from the narrative turpitude; otherwise it would be too much. When he does film in close-up we are shocked: a mouthful of feces, a young girl’s slit throat, and a woman’s laughing visage while off-screen a young boy is molested. There is no humor here in Pasolini’s film; there is only the rank stench of shit and decay, like the open pits at Ohdruff full of bloated corpses. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is composed of foreground music; a redheaded woman plays the piano during the depraved storytelling sessions, or a radio that blares some asynchronous tune beyond the frame’s border. These storytelling sessions imprint their violent fantasies upon our minds in a way that actually showing the act cannot. Indeed, imagination can be a cruel weakness.
The rumble of Allied bombers counts down the days of this tyrannical regime and they rush to fulfill every insane desire. Eventually, even one of the cruel participants is overwhelmed and destroys herself; she is the musician: it’s as if Pasolini is saying that even Art has its limits, which can be a malignant internal metaphor for SALO itself. The torture scenes that end the film are viewed from a distance through binoculars, each of the four rulers taking turns as witness and master. The acts are unspeakable. The pain is unbearable. The smiling faces of the torturers are contorted by this animal cruelty and yet they remain human. And the most frightening aspect of SALO is that these abuses are perpetuated, not by faceless monsters, but human beings.
Final Cut: (A)