FILM - A REFUSAL TO CONSUME - PIERO PAOLO PASOLINI
refusal to consume
One achievement of the screen has been to
teach us not to be disturbed by distinctions between then and now.
Cinema and television operate through a continuous present and from a
borderless space. For the patrons queuing at a multi-screen complex,
Pasolini's Oedipus occupies the same space-time zone as his Theorema,
despite the 3000 years between their settings.
Ceaseless exposure to moving pictures means that our mode of perception
has been altered, making even the recent past into another country. How
much more impenetrable then must be a film that requires knowledge of
another nation's past? Who but the
Pasolini's Salo did not become available for
viewing by Australians until seventeen years after its release, and was
banned again in 1998. That so anti-fascist a film should attract the
censors is its palme d'or.
With the film detached from its originating
time and place, it is harder than ever to decide what Pasolini intended,
or what he exposed about his unconscious. In addition, without a
knowledge of the social, political and cultural climate of the early
1970s in Italy, the moral arguments in Salo are blurred. As a result,
even some apologists for its release concluded that this film was both
immoral in its depictions and amoral in its intent. Removed from the
politics of the 1970s, Salo became more of a curiosity than ever.
At issue is not the relativism of ethics.
Pasolini's values cannot be made more or less acceptable by being
relocated in time or place. The point is that, unless one is willing to
acquaint oneself with the specifics of Italian life in 1943-45 as well
as in the 1970s, the moral lessons of Salo will be lost beneath its
representations of mania. For example, early in the film, a road sign
points to Marzabotto. To Italians this name conveys a terror similar to
that of Lodz for Poles, because the Nazis executed the Italian town's
entire population. That glimpse alerted 1976 Italian audiences to the
inferno they were about to encounter in Salo, but left most non-Italians
The title itself triggered a reaction among Pasolini's compatriots,
though one almost unknown outside Italy. Salo is the Italian equivalent
of Vichy for the French. It was the headquarters of the Fascist Republic
established under Mussolini in 1943, after the
An immediate context for interpreting what
Pasolini attempted in Salo comes from his linked epistles to an imagined
15-year-old Neapolitan boy, which were first published in the Milan
newspaper Corriere della Sera, and later collected under the title
Lutheran Letters. In the 1510s, Luther had attacked the Italian church
for its corruption. In the 1970s, Pasolini was chastising Italian youth
for the corruption of submitting to consumerism, education and
television. He called for at least a temporary halt to post-primary
education. It is therefore no surprise that in Salo most of the victims
come from good schools, that is, from the miseducated who have been
corrupted by the best that Italy had on offer.
Nothing was further from Pasolini's atheism
than the claim, made during a fantasy sequence in Dostoevsky's The
Brothers Karamazov, that all would be permitted if the Judaeo-Christian
God did not exist. Pasolini scarified the permissiveness of the 1960s.
Though he agreed that abortion and divorce should be legalised, he
feared that their availability on demand was yet one more sign that
consumerism was turning bodies into commodities. He criticised drugs and
long hair along similar lines. In his Lutheran Letters, Pasolini
pictured himself as a father who must condemn his sons, defining
condemnation as a 'ceasing to love'. Hence, as biographer Barth David
Schwartz proposes, Salo became a visualisation of The Lutheran Letters.
After Pasolini was murdered, supposedly by a teenage boy, Salo became
part of the defence case, both in and out of court. The lawyer's line
ran that the film proved that Pasolini was pathologically violent and
had attacked his killer who, in turn, had acted in
Sections of the mass media went even further
and claimed that Pasolini had abused Salo’s young performers off the
set in the ways that he had depicted on screen. Such accusations
acquired credence because Pasolini refused to play the journalistic game
of giving clichéd answers. Asked whether the teenage actors were
'masochistic', Pasolini joked: 'If I chose them, that means they are.'
His enemies used this irony to suggest that after-hours orgies had taken
place. What Pasolini meant was that the actors, all amateurs, suffered
from the moral and physical passivity he deplored in the Italian youth
of the mid-1970s.
Did Pasolini abuse the teenagers in his final
film? Any affirmative answer is bound to be misused, but it must
nonetheless be risked. From the available evidence, it is unlikely that
he laid a hand upon any of them beyond what was necessary to direct
their performances, but we should also consider what lasting
psychological effects their appearance in these roles might have had on
the juveniles. Their consent to perform had been obtained but they could
not anticipate how their participation in Salo would be interpreted by
others for years to come.
Beyond that danger lies another sense in
which Pasolini realised his fantasies through his film-making. During
the early 1970s he had completed his 'Trilogy of Life' with cinema
versions of The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and A Thousand and One
Nights. Those three movies were all set in a pre-capitalist moral
universe which he believed had lingered in the slums of Italian cities
until the 1960s but which, by 1975, survived only in his imagined
Pasolini could welcome the allegation that these films were pornographic
and scandalous because he knew that such complaints were provoked by his
refusal to submit to the commodification of bodies. He defied that
Admass aesthetic by keeping art as his link between the sacred and the
By the mid-1970s the bodies and genitals that
Pasolini had celebrated in these films had become repulsive to him
because 'even the "reality" of innocent bodies has been
violated, manipulated, enslaved by consumerist power – indeed such
violence to human bodies has become the most macroscopic fact of the new
He warned contemporary youths against complicity in their own genocide:
An abundance of
commodities had made their lives superfluous, he repeated. Pasolini saw
himself resisting the renunciation of life required to have sex with
these 'living dead'.
Salo is divided
into four segments. In its prelude, the victims are selected and
incarcerated under the power of a magistrate, a priest, an aristocrat
and a banker. These gentlemen are doubly disturbing because, in
appearance and manners, they look ordinary, planning their crimes as
they would manage any business, with the calculation of clerks.
The rest of the film tours three Dantean
circles: mania, excrement and blood. Dante was as great an influence on
Pasolini as de Sade. In 1974, Pasolini began to write Divina Mimesis as
a response to Divina Commedia. Just as Dante's Inferno prophesied ruin
Any separation of Salo's three circles is
artificial because violence makes each mania possible. As Luis Bunuel
announced in his 1972 film, violence is the discreet charm of the
bourgeoisie. First, there is the violence of war. Early on, we are shown
a dead resistance fighter, perhaps Pasolini's brother. The four men hold
their power because of the German army, backed by local militia. Force
is everywhere. One boy is shot trying to escape and a girl kills herself
rather than submit. Those incidents bring home to the audience what the
occupied population of Salo took for granted, namely, that power is
merciless and capricious.
Because the line between reel time and real
time is notoriously difficult to determine, some reviewers voiced their
takeaway impression that torture occupies most of the film. In fact,
violent acts are shown for no more than four or five minutes. What makes
it difficult to be certain of their duration is that - like the sliced
eye in Un Chien Andalou - their impact is so intense that they tend to
blot out other memories.
As with much on-screen violence, Pasolini's
effects are achieved by insinuation. The three most horrendous moments
cease a few seconds after most of the audience will have closed their
eyes. Another feature of Salo is that these horrors occur in silence. No
soundtrack manipulates our responses.
Since depictions of violence take up so small
a part of Salo, the question arises as to whether Pasolini's camera
could have cut away a few seconds sooner - for example, before the knife
begins to scalp a girl? My suspicion is that it could have done so
without diminishing the distress that those scenes had for me when I
shut my eyes at my first exposure in 1983, forced myself to watch in
1987, and blinked during a third viewing in 1993. So dense is Pasolini's
creation that not until a fourth viewing did I hear that the
accompaniment to the banquet of other excrements was Hitler's voice over
By contrast, Bunuel, the doyen of left-wing
Surrealists, moved away from explicit sexual depictions and nudity when
those features became widespread in commercial cinema. He succeeded in
making erotic films in which everyone kept their clothes on. Should
Pasolini have exercised a comparable creativity?
Depictions of violence also differ in their
impacts depending on their place in a film. For example, the application
of a red-hot branding iron to a boy's nipple in Salo is not different
from the scene in Pasolini's film of The Canterbury Tales where,
following Chaucer's text, a cuckolded baker applies a red-hot poker to
the arsehole of his wife's lover, who, in the pitch of night, has stuck
his bum out the bedroom window for the baker to kiss, though the baker
is supposed to be expecting his wife's mouth. One difference in our
reactions is that the adulterer is receiving rough justice while the
victim in Salo is guilty of offences only against a regime of
humiliation. In addition, for Pasolini, the contrast is between lustful
humans living in a pre-capitalist England and the contemporary Italians
whose bodies are commodities.
Far from being a theatre of torments,
Pasolini's film is taken up with people talking or listening, although
rarely conversing. This emphasis on words seems contrary in a film-maker
who had trained as an art historian and loved to paint. The explanation
lies in the importance Pasolini attached to language, both for his
poetry and his politics.
As a teenager, Pasolini moved from his native
Bologna to his mother's birthplace of Friuli, in the Venetian
hinterland, where he learnt to write poetry in the local language. He
had established his reputation as a poet before he directed his first
film in 1961, and many commentators believe that his name will be
honoured for his verse long after his movies - indeed all movies - are
The adoption of a single Italian language,
based upon a Florentine dialect, was part of unification after 1860.
Pasolini regretted the loss of regional languages and of dialects, first
for their own sake, but also because by the 1970s they were being
overwhelmed, not by a demotic nationalism, but by the mendacity of
His novels of sub-proletarian life in Rome,
The Regazzi (1955) and A Violent Life (1959), brought attention to a new
dialect of the streets. He was abused for this discovery by those who
feared that a new way of talking would challenge national unity. He had
learned that argot by having to live poor himself; he was never
slumming, even when he became wealthy and notorious. He believed that
the people who lived in shanties on the fringes of Rome in the 1950s
retained the same relation to the earth as the peasants among whom he
had lived in the north. His first film, Accattone (1961), was an
unsentimental life story of one of these underclass Italians, a pimp.
Pasolini came to
believe that it was impossible to speak the truth in the language
authorised by television presenters and the Christian Democrat elite.
The latter he considered to be the 'dregs of humanity' who talk 'the
language of things; it . . . does not admit of rejoinders, alternatives,
resistance'. Of the press and television he declared 'nothing will halt
my fury, which is that of someone who, as you see, is gentle'. After the
shooting of Salo, Pasolini felt that he had failed to reach the heart of
violence. 'For me, the maximum of violence is a television announcer.'
He felt that the violence in his films was always a poetic device, and
never a real fact.
At the start of his Lutheran Letters, Pasolini declared that every time
Christian Democrat Ieaders 'open their mouths they do nothing but lie:
from insincerity, from guilt, from fear, from cunning. Their language is
the language of the lie.' He saw his duty, and that of all
intellectuals, as being to teach people 'to scream with disgust at every
word' politicians utter.
monologues by three whores are the key to Pasolini's aims. If the
stories these women relate are designed to titillate and corrupt the
young, so are the speeches of politicians and Admass promotions for
So distasteful is
the middle circle of Salo that journalists have learned to spell
coprophagia to describe the sequences where the victims are forced to
eat shit. During the film-making, the shit was chocolate. Bearing that
substitution in mind, we are better able to digest Pasolini's purpose.
The forced feeding of the young with excrement was his visualisation of
how they are poisoned by television. Chocolate is an exact metaphor for
the promotion of la dolce vita, the delusion of a sweet life promised by
Pasolini disturbs for some of the same
reasons as de Sade. Both confront us with ideas we would rather not
acknowledge. For example, de Sade was dismissed from his post during the
French Revolution because he would not send the convicted to the
guillotine. His reason? The state, he argued, had no right to kill
people because it obtained no sexual gratification from so doing. His
claim seems perverse until the recognition seeps through that de Sade
has exposed an aspect of capital punishment that even its opponents dare
not discuss. Champions of capital punishment can indeed obtain an erotic
thrill from the death penalty. Pasolini depicted four of the methods of
legal execution used in 1975: hanging, garrotting, the electric chair
Salo's circle of blood, therefore, was not a private fantasy but
criticised cruel and unusual punishments sanctioned by the state.
Salo's circles of mania, shit and blood are
introduced with screen titles. Three other circles of infamy are left
unannounced, to be enacted throughout the film. They are the circles of
voyeurism, indifference and collaboration. For Pasolini, these are the
greater crimes because they allow the other circles to take place.
For much of the circle of blood we watch the
four men of power taking turns to observe torture through binoculars
from an upstairs window. One of them turns the glasses around so that
the distancing is intensified. Pasolini's own dissatisfaction with
filmmaking comes through in this critique of looking as it becomes
Screens, great and small, have made voyeurs
of us all. Indifference is one consequence of such passive exposure to
images. In Salo the on-screen pianist, who never speaks, protests
against the film's representation of power when she sees how the young
are being mutilated. Without a word, she jumps to her death. The limits
of her indifference have been breached, just as Pasolini's had been by
the normality of Italy's economic miracle. In that disgust, he was at
one with the right-wing Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, whose revulsion
at a national ethos of income-doubling stirred him towards ritual
suicide in 1970.
Collaboration remained by far the gravest
offence in Pasolini's eyes. The four masters hold sway because they
collaborate with the Nazi occupiers and because, in turn, the local
fascists collaborate with them. But collaboration goes further and
infects the victims who, stripped of power and clothes, seek to survive
by informing on each other. One boy begins this appeasement by smiling
at his corrupter. He repeats this flirtation right up to the instant
when his eye is about to be gouged out, as if his show of acceptance
will stop the torture happening, or hurting.
Pasolini speak of him as a humanist who lost his way. His traducers
allege that he was an immoralist. Neither is accurate. His attackers are
easier to rebut. Pasolini, as an active same-sex practitioner, was not
an ethicist who believed that the Vatican was an infallible source of
knowledge about good and evil. The Christ he admired was the radical
portrayed in his 1964 film, The Gospel According to Matthew, (no St in
his title), which he dedicated to Pope John XXIII. When the film was
attacked by Catholics and Communists, Pasolini asserted the aesthetic
that informed all his creations: 'I am not interested in deconsecrating:
this is a fashion I hate, it is petit-bourgeois. I want to re-consecrate
things as much as possible, I want to re-mythicise them.
Defending Pasolini as a humanist is no less
mistaken. He was one in the sense that he did not believe in spooks of
any kind, whether residing in the Christian heaven or in folktales. But
he was not a humanist in the mould of Beethoven and Schiller, who
believed that all men and women were brothers and sisters. On the
contrary, he knew that some humans behaved Iike brutes. The duty of a
humanist was to expose those criminals, and even more to oppose the
social circumstances that allowed them to exercise power. The task was
to end the barbarisms on which class civilisations had been built.
Pasolini did not depend on the deluded Ivan
in The Brothers Karamazov for the vision of a social order where all was
permitted. For Pasolini, that regime had emerged, not out of atheism,
but through capitalism, which already had made it possible to think of a
world without a god. Pasolini had learned from Karl Marx's modernist
prose poem, The Communist Manifesto, that under the rule of the
bourgeoisie ‘all that is holy is profaned’.
The only remaining social nexus is cash. Within capitalism, people
became not just objects but commodities, that is, things to be
exchanged. Under a system where price replaced value, all was permitted.
The world portrayed in Salo reveals a capitalism freed from compromises
with the past such as the fascists' Concordat with the Vatican.
His passion thus went into reacting against
the 'aggressive conformism' of the consumer order, into a refusal to
Salo was an assault on the market totalitarians, not on the
self-proclaimed neo-fascists of the 1970s. He did not define fascism as
a theoretician, but as man of the streets whose cruising for sex had
been curtailed by television, which had imposed a curfew more complete
than that during the war years. Oppression, for Pasolini, had become the
unchecked exercise of commercial power, which allows the F and C words
to be used for sex, but not to link fascism with capitalism.
Pasolini's essays possessed the extremism of
other visionary poets, such as Blake or Shelley. He turned on the
novelists Calvino and Moravia for their submission to a rationality that
served the mechanisation of human life. Calvino concluded that to debate
with Pasolini was like hitching a lift from a racing driver.
Not a little of his speed came from the fact that the poet too had been
tainted by the economic miracle. He no longer prowled for street boys on
foot, but in his AIfa.
Out of a fury of self-loathing came Salo.
In his 'Trilogy of Life', Pasolini had
depicted his sexual fantasies in the glories of his pre-commercial
physicality. Those times were not idyllic. He had shown sodomites being
burned alive. But at least there had been passions other than those of
the cash register. In Salo he enacted the sexual and political despair
that had awakened within him. The physical sufferings he invented for
the young of 1945 were a purge for the complacency he detested in the
young of 1975. The bitterness and sarcasm of his Lutheran Letters had
found not only their visual statement, but also a release for their
Controversy continues in Australia from the
1993 decision by the Film and Literature Board of Review to release Salo.
Left-wing feminists led the demand for its re-banning. Board members
declared at the time that one viewing was enough for them and declined
to recommend it to friends or family. Had the Board, and its critics,
watched Salo four times and studied the works on its reading list, they
might have urged the public to do likewise as a moral re-education.
Before condemning or endorsing Pasolini's
vision, let us have the courage to grant him the final plea that he was
denied in life:
Siciliano, Pasolini. A Biography, Bloomsbury, London, 1987, p. 368;
Schwartz, op. cit., p. 663. See also Who on earth is Tom Baker?,
Harper Collins, London, 1997, pp. 137-44.
Rurnble, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life. Allegories of
Contamination, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1996.
Viano, A Certain Realism. Making Use of Pasolini's Film Theory and
Practice, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993, p. 296
op. cit., p. 351.
ibid., p. 659.
Paolo Pasolini, Lutheran Letters, Carcanet New Press, Manchester,
1983, pp. 25-6.
May 1961 the Italian artist Piero Manzoni tinned and marketed his
own shit in autographed and numbered tins.
in Schwartz, op. cit., p. 658.
Scott Stokes, The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima, Tuttle, Tokyo,
1975, p. 43.
Stack, Pasolini on Pasolini: interviews with Oswald Stack, Thames
& Hudson, London, 1969, pp. 77-87.
Berman, AII that is solid melts into air. The Experience of
Modernity, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1982, chapter 2.
Greene, 'Salo: The Refusal to Consume', Patrick Rumble and Bart
Testa (eds), Pier Paolo Pasolini. Contemporary Perspectives, Toronto
University Press, Toronto, 1994, pp. 232-42.
op. cit., p. 629.