Friday, May 13, 2005

Salo: A Reminiscence

Yesterday brought the news that the 30-year-old murder of Italian poet, playwright, political activist and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini would be reopened due to the willingness of the assassin to perhaps name his accomplices.  Pasolini was the visionary filmmaker behind such masterpieces as Canterbury Tales, Oedipus Rex, Medea, The Gospel according to Matthew, and The Decameron.  Pasolini was a devout gay communist who grew up in the shadow of fascism.  His brother was murdered by Yugoslavian separatists during World War II.  Pasolini's visionary style is intriguing.  First of all, it is beautiful.  His composition is remarkable, the weight of image juxtaposed with the quality of light, and the fluidity of the moving human form.   Second, it is passionate.  Maria Callas as Medea comes to mind, but most of Pasolini's performers were not trained actors, thus the emotion he elicits is often very genuine and raw.  And third, his films always employed a modern sensibility imposed on a classical text.  Thus we come to Pasolini's last film, Salo: 120 Days of Sodom.  The text here was the Marquis De Sade's suppressed and profane work of the same name.  Pasolini updated the story to the waning days of World War II.  A group of four fascist dignitaries, The Duke, The Magistrate, the Archbishop and the President select a group of teenagers and take them to a castle in the mountains.  There they spend 120 days abusing them in every conceivable way and end by murdering them.  At first glance this seems like little more than an exploitation film that reaches the lowest levels of depravity and the highest of obscenity.  However, there is so much more this film does to the viewer.  This is an intimate, challenging and horrific journey of the soul.  It is an exploration of violence, the way the ruling class exploits the dreams, the bodies and souls of the lower--in particular, the youth of the next generation, who are enslaved to not only work for the comfort and well being of the upper class, but to serve their every debased and obsessive need.  Here we see Pasolini the communist theorist. 

Pasolini had a love-hate relationship with the catholic church.  He loved the church, and the church hated him.  His spirituality conflicted the communist mandate for atheism.  You cannot analyze Salo in a vacuum.  It is the last work of an artist who was on a trajectory.  This is the same filmmaker who made the Gospel of Matthew--one of the most beloved cinematic depictions of the life of Christ.  (Mel Gibson sort of smashed Salo together with The Gospel of Matthew and created the Passion of the Christ).  The children in Salo are sufferers, just as Christ suffered, although they suffer far, far worse tortures than Christ ever dreamed of suffering.  The bourgois fascists are far worse than the worst demons from hell.  Yet, it is all entirely believable.  The film is an expose of the depravity of the fascist capitalist system, and the suffering and death it inflicts upon the young and the poor, using the cinematic language of visual hyperbole.

When I first saw Salo, I could not believe how beautiful a film it was, the quality of light, the colors, the beautiful scenery and landscape, and how quickly it degenerated into the most offensive ugliness I had ever witnessed.  I've never fainted watching a film, but I've come very close.  The first time was I Spit on Your Grave, the second was Salo.  Be warned, this film is not for the faint of heart.  The prostitutes telling their stories in the round room, with the pianist and the elegant deco-style furnishings--reminded me of the mood and the look of David Lynch.  Like Mulholland Drive, Salo takes you where angels fear to tread.  If you can survive Salo, it will stick in your mind like glue.  Entire scenes will be as vivid ten years hence as they are the next day.  This is a film which must be seen by every scholar and film buff.  Once you have survived the experience, you will be changed forever.

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