Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom

Italy-France 1975, 117 mins
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pasolini’s hopes, energies and talent were focused on resistance to the sameness of culture, to the homogenising, consumerist demands of capital, its creation of (false) desires and the politico-social instruments for their establishment. Throughout the 1970s, until his death, he railed against any hint of accommodation and reserved his most violent and outrageous remarks for the tolerance offered by Italian society as its means for greater social integration rather than, in his terms, genuine freedom. At the core of Pasolini’s resistance, particularly in his films, was the body, sexuality, violence, physicality. It was on the basis of the body that he sought his actors, the way figures smiled, moved, danced, shouted. It was their (sacred) beauty and thereby their opposition in their very being to the institutionalised. Alas, such beauty is always ephemeral; not even analogy can save it.

It was the young and their sexuality that Pasolini had idealised, particularly in the case of his Trilogia della vita in the early 1970s which immediately preceded Salò. But there was a problem.

The institutionalisations and repressions he decried were too powerful. It was as if the youth, sex, rather than resisting, had capitulated to a tolerance and liberality that absorbed it, not only changing character but characteristics, features and bodies. Salò is not only the story of that capitulation but a punishment for it. Pasolini was like an angry disappointed father chastising his children, while the horrors committed by the libertines on the young in the film were analogies of what was already current for Pasolini in present-day Italy. The libertines were, in more ways than one, his instruments, even his joy. Power, for him, had usurped sexuality, had destroyed the last bastion of difference and defence, the very difference out of which poetry could be made; hence the equation-analogy of reality and language that he entertained. It had reduced the irreducible.

The scandal of Salò resides less in its representations of torture and perversity than in the perversity of the film whose visual beauty frames horrors with such care and in such a manner as to make the film, in its meticulousness and precision framing, analogous to the rules, order and inescapable power exercised by the libertines. There is too the scandal of his impossible, inappropriate analogies: de Sade, fascism, present-day capitalism and Dante, equated, hypothetical, hyperbolic comparisons, untenable and in being so, impossible to accommodate and, in certain scenes of Salò, to witness and accept.
Sam Rohdie, Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom, BFI DVD booklet

It is, perhaps, Pasolini’s most enduring legacy, as a Marxist maverick distrusted by the mainstream Left and loathed by the Right, to have stirred up ideological complacencies of whatever order and rehabilitated, in the context of progressive bourgeois democracies, the whole notion of scandal as secular blasphemy. For the critic, the particular ‘scandal’ of his last film might well be its virtual unreviewability: Salò, in an absolutely literal sense defies criticism. Its chapter-like structure is strong but unsubtle, there is no real narrative development and no ‘performance’ to speak of.

Visually, Salò consists of a series of ritualised tableaux framed by the décor of the villa in which the orgies take place. But the use to which Pasolini puts some of the most seductively evocative textures of the recent past – Bauhaus furniture, paintings by Léger and Feininger, dance-band music and Ezra Pound on the radio – bears no relation to the decorative, ‘thirties-as-wallpaper aesthetic’ of, say, Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Here it is impossible to indulge in selective nostalgia. By placing a naked young girl eating her tormentor’s warm excrement in front of the Léger, Pasolini in no way ‘romanticises’ the act; rather, he defaces the mural, as violently as, for its time, Duchamp’s painted moustache defaced the Mona Lisa. He subverts a work of art that was itself once scandalous before becoming respectable museum fodder. And even if it were not justified by Les 120 journées de Sodome, only excrement could serve this purpose, being the original element of that metaphorical transference that produces graffiti, slogans painted on walls, etc.

For Salò, perhaps the most successful representation of physical cruelty in the history of the cinema, is also one of the least metaphorical of films. To understand why, it is necessary to raise the question of infidelity to Sade’s text (so disturbing to French critics, in particular). Despite the (no doubt, consciously) provocative bibliography that figures with such prominence in the film’s credits, citing Barthes, Blanchot and Klossowski, it would seem unarguable that, when he turned Sade’s protagonists into Fascist monsters Pasolini was betraying the anarchic spirit of Les 120 journées. But, apart from the fact that, by availing himself of the novel’s form without endorsing its philosophical substructure, he was only following Sade’s example (from Dante and Boccaccio), there is a sense in which Salò is a truly Sadean film. In numerous interviews, Pasolini referred to its subject as ‘the treatment of human beings as objects’, presumably in as much a political as a purely sexual context. But, given the material he was shooting, he was certainly aware that his film risked being a huge succès de scandale and that crowds do not flock to see political allegories.

Any film containing explicitly sexual scenes is a pornographic film, for that is how it will be consumed. In effect, the film could not but reflect the conditions of its own fabrication, which become the real Sadean text. P.P.P., dandy (in the Baudelairean sense), cinéaste and homosexual, encloses himself and his crew for 52 days in an isolated villa (studio interiors) with 16 beautiful young men and women, on whom he inflicts humiliations less appalling, certainly, than those depicted in the film – the excrement, we are told, was a compound of chocolate and dry biscuit – but humiliations nevertheless, magnified by the cinema as by a giant two-way mirror. What else is one young girl’s disappointment on being rejected, as a victim, but the reflection of so many heartbreaks at casting sessions that must have been organised like the preliminary heats of a beauty contest?

Critics tend to shy away from the material conditions of filmmaking, never asking themselves what happens afterwards to the grotesques that haunt Fellini’s fantasies or the languid youths who grace Visconti’s salons. The only true anarchy – as one of the characters in Salò, quoting Sade, remarks – is the anarchy of power. Pasolini’s last film is disturbing not because of what it shows, but because of what it is.
Gilbert Adair, Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1979

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Production Company: P.E.A. – Produzioni Europee Associate, Les Productions Artistes Associés Producer: Alberto Grimaldi
Unit Managers: Alessandro Mattei, Renzo David, Angelo Zemella
Production Manager: Antonio Girasante
Production Supervisor: Alberto De Stefanis
Post-production Supervisor: Enzo Ocone
1st Assistant Director: Umberto Angelucci
2nd Assistant Director: Fiorella Infascelli
Continuity: Beatrice Banfi
Screenplay: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Script Collaborator: Sergio Citti
Based on the novel by: Donatien Alphonse François de Sade
Director of Photography: Tonino Delli Colli
Camera Operators: Carlo Tafani, Emilio Bestetti
1st Assistant Cameraman: Sandro Battaglia
2nd Assistant Cameraman: Giancarlo Granatelli
Editor: Nino Baragli
1st Assistant Editor: Ugo De Rossi
2nd Assistant Editor: Alfredo Menchini
Art Director: Dante Ferretti
Set Dresser: Osvaldo Desideri
Costumes: Danilo Donati
Assistant Costumes: Vanni Castellani
Costumes Created by: Farani
Make-up: Alfredo Tiberi
Special Make-up Effects: Rocchetti-Carboni
Hair: Giuseppina Bovino
Wigs: Rocchetti-Carboni
Music played on the pianoforte by: Arnaldo Graziosi
Music Publisher: Eureka
Music Consultant: Ennio Morricone
Sound: Domenico Pasquadisceglie, Giorgio Loviscek
Boom Operator: Giuseppina Sagliano
Mixer: Fausto Ancillai
Sound Effects: Luciano Anzellotti
Post-synchronisation: International Recording Studios (Rome)
Set Furnishings/Drapes: D’Angelo
Crystal: D.O.M.
Porcelain: Richard – Ginori
Unit Publicity: Nico Naldini

Paolo Bonacelli (the duke)
Giorgio Cataldi (the bishop)
Uberto P. Quintavalle (chief magistrate)
Aldo Valletti (the president)
Caterina Boratto (Signora Castelli)
Elsa De Giorgi (Signora Maggi)
Hélène Surgère (Signora Vaccari)
Sonia Saviange (the piano virtuoso)
Sergio Fascetti, Bruno Musso, Antonio Orlando, Claudio Cicchetti, Franco Merli, Umberto Chessari, Lamberto Book, Gaspare Di Jenno (masked victims)
Giuliana Melis, Faridah Malik, Graziella Aniceto, Renata Moar, Dorit Henke, Antinisca Nemour, Benedetta Gaetani, Olga Andreis (female victims)
Tatiana Mogilansky, Susanna Radaelli, Giuliana Orlandi, Liana Acquaviva (young women)
Rinaldo Missaglia, Giuseppe Patruno, Guido Galletti, Efisio Etzi (young soldiers)
Claudio Troccoli, Fabrizio Menichini, Maurizio Valaguzza, Ezio Manni (collaborators)
Paola Pieracci, Carla Terlizzi, Anna Maria Dossena, Anna Recchimuzzi, Ines Pellegrini (procuresses/servants)
Marco Bellocchio (dubbed voice of the president) *
Laura Betti (dubbed voice of Signora Vaccari) *
Michel Piccoli (voice of the duke, French version) *

Italy-France 1975
117 mins


The screening on Tue 9 Jan will be introduced by season curator Jason Wood

Basket Case
Mon 1 Jan 15:20; Thu 25 Jan 20:40
Pink Flamingos
Mon 1 Jan 18:20; Fri 19 Jan 18:20; Fri 26 Jan 20:50 (+ intro by Mark Moore and Tasty Tim)
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Tue 2 Jan 18:20; Thu 18 Jan 21:00 (+ intro by film scholar and writer Virginie Selavy)
Taxi zum Klo
Wed 3 Jan 20:50; Mon 8 Jan 20:40 (+ intro by Vic Roberts, Scala usher)
The Warriors
Sat 6 Jan 18:15; Sun 14 Jan 12:00; Wed 17 Jan 20:55 (+ intro by SCALA!!! co-director Ali Catterall)
Sat 6 Jan 20:00; Sun 14 Jan 14:10
The Evil Dead
Fri 5 Jan 20:45 (+ intro by Graham Humphreys, freelance illustrator and designer of the original UK marketing for The Evil Dead); Tue 30 Jan 18:10
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma
Tue 9 Jan 20:35 (+ intro by season curator Jason Wood, BFI Executive Director of Public Programmes & Audiences); Tue 23 Jan 18:10
Sight and Sound Presents: Scala Spirit 1993-2023
Thu 11 Jan 18:20
Thu 11 Jan 21:00; Sun 21 Jan 15:20
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
Fri 12 Jan 18:10 (+ intro by Ben Roberts, BFI CEO); Wed 31 Jan 18:20
Pink Narcissus + Un chant d’amour
Fri 12 Jan 20:40; Thu 25 Jan 18:20
The Saint: Teresa + intro by Dick Fiddy, Archive TV Programmer + The Avengers: A Touch of Brimstone
Sat 13 Jan 14:30
Looking for Mr Goodbar + Dick
Sat 13 Jan 17:45 (+ intro by season curator Jane Giles); Mon 22 Jan 20:10
The Thing
Sat 13 Jan 20:40; Mon 29 Jan 20:45
The Beast La Bête
Tue 16 Jan 20:45; Tue 23 Jan 20:50
Surprise Film + intro by season curator Jane Giles
Sat 20 Jan 17:10
A Clockwork Orange
Sun 21 Jan 18:00; Wed 31 Jan 20:25
Shock, Horror! The Scala All-nighter: An American Werewolf in London; The Creature from the Black Lagoon – 3D; Videodrome; The Incredible Shrinking Man; A Nightmare on Elm Street
Sat 27 Jan 22:30 BFI IMAX

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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