At one point in W.G. Sebald's Vertigo the unnamed narrator, traveling by bus through northern Italy, sees a pair of twin boys who resemble the young Franz Kafka. When he approaches the boys' parents with a request to photograph them, he is immediately mistaken for a pedophile and quickly flees from the bus. In a typical example of Sebaldian understatement, the narrator casually mentions one of the towns the bus passes through: Salo. Sebald gives us only the name of the town, mentioned in passing, but it's just enough to create multiple overtones that harmonize with the concerns of the bus scene and the novel as a whole. We perhaps recognize Salo first as the capital city of the so-called Salo Republic, the pro-Nazi puppet state ruled by Italian fascists in the latter part of World War Two. We might then recall Pier Paolo Pasolini's controversial 1975 film Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom. These overtones deepen the bus scene by sounding notes of fascism, pedophilia, sexual sadism, torture, murder, paranoia--and by sounding them silently (in sharp contrast to Pasolini's film), with the mere mention of a four-letter word: Salo.
Pasolini's film (recently re-released on an overpriced Criterion Collection DVD) is a bizarre and probably sui generis satire, a satire of disgust. It satirizes fascism not by amusing its viewers but by disgusting them. This is probably the only mode in which fascism can be satirized, the only mode that doesn't trivialize its crimes (as they are ultimately trivialized in, for example, Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful). Salo is an intellectual tour de force that begins with a reading list (Barthes, Klossowski, de Beauvoir, etc.) and demands multiple viewings and serious thought. It's a film about the repulsiveness of unbridled power that implicates us, the viewers, in the things we see. (Recall Michael Herr's realization in Dispatches: "...it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.") Pasolini doesn't provide us with any ironic 'outs,' any easy ways to position ourselves 'above' the characters and their repulsive acts. The terrible literalness of the film's imagery (shit is literally eaten; characters are literally tortured to death) resists interpretive reduction. These images do not represent something else; they are themselves and unassimilable. The implication of the viewer in the characters' crimes is underlined at the film's climax, when Pasolini puts us in the torturers' seat and shows us the climactic tortures from their point of view. Like the fascists, we are spectators distanced from the action by lenses and a screen (the torturers' opera glasses and window stand in for the film projector and cinema screen). Like them we sit in fixed chairs and observe the spectacle from a position of safety. Thinking along these lines, I understand the final scene as Pasolini's final indictment of the audience: we are like those dancing fascist soldiers, delightedly consuming a mass media product--literally, dancing to a mediated tune--while the most horrible things are happening only a few yards--or miles, or countries--away.
And this interpretation I'm grasping at still doesn't take into account the film's conflation of Sade and Dante, its foregrounding of the acts of storytelling and listening to stories, the formal elegance of the sets and compositions, like beautiful boxes overflowing with horrors (also an element of the 'modern' narrative in Pasolini's Porcile). It's a richly disturbing film that's disturbing in its richness.
I like the way Pasolini's best films seem to grow in the mind after viewing. These movies linger; they stick. It's as though the first viewing sows a seed and the plant of meaning grows under the sunlight of reflection (a labored metaphor, I know). Like Resnais, Bergman and Godard at his best, Pasolini is an intellectual filmmaker whose films demand the deep and active participation of the viewer. More than making us see or letting us enjoy, they force us to think--a much more difficult pleasure.
Salo also impresses me as a psychologically 'close' description of fascism. Fascists are people who force others to eat shit. And the theater of cruelty in which this act occurs is a good description of what fascism is, what it must feel like. (If I, who have not suffered under it, can presume to make such a judgment.)
Now I'm thinking of Salo's violence in relation to Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. In Gibson's supremely unsubtle film, where a surface layer of verisimilitude conceals an intellectual void, the viewer is repelled, sickened, but never genuinely disturbed. Because the viewer (presumed to be Christian) identifies with the suffering victim throughout, he is never challenged to examine himself, to question his own motives and actions. The American fundamentalist viewer is only confirmed in his (patently false) understanding of his position as an embattled victim in a world of enemies. Hence, Gibson's film is reactionary while Pasolini's is at least potentially radical. Salo reflects back upon the viewer a repulsive vision of himself. Pasolini's film has teeth. And it will bite you.