Watched Salò (1975) last night. Found it to be as disturbing as it is reputed to be. I almost retched when the Duke forced one of the girls to eat his shit, with a spoon. The power of an image. My room may not be the cleanest place in the world, but it is not a pigsty. When the victims were treated to a banquet of feces, however, I could almost smell and taste their fare. Worse followed when they were tortured by scalping, branding, cutting of tongue and gorging of eyes, while the four Fascist libertines took turns to watch from a window. I looked at the victims through their torturers' binoculars.
This update of Marquis de Sade was intended by its writer and director Pier Paulo Pasolini to be a critique of Italian Fascism. The Republic of Salò was the Fascist-occupied portion of Italy in 1944. The film began with the Duke, the President, the Bishop and the Magistrate giving their daughters to each other in marriage as a way of sealing their pact. But the visceral images of horror became detached, for me, from the political commentary. They had a force that went beyond any allegory.
Closer to explaining the film's effect is the idea of the commodification of the human body under late capitalism, a belief held by Pasolini. But the film itself does not seem to illustrate the workings of capital; it shows instead the twisted desires of four powerful men, aroused by four prostitutes who told stories of sexual humiliation in their past. The film does give instances of human feelings that are contrary to sadism. One of the white guards falls for a black servant, and they are making love when they are found and shot. Two of the female victims find some consolation in their feelings for each other. One of the prostitutes, who played the piano during the storytelling, finally cannot bear the sounds of the torture, and throws herself through a window and falls to her death. How do these people become the exceptions if they are living under baleful capitalism too?
But locating good and evil in individual persons is not much of an explanation either. If this film offers an insight into the human condition, that insight is not so much political or economic as it is socio-psychological. That obsessions require ritual, as shown in the first Circle of the film, and that ritual has an element of obsession. In the second Circle, our disgust with feces has to do with our fear of death. The third and last Circle, that of blood, is less easily understood in this way. From that circle, not only do I remember the bloodletting, but also the only erotic scene of the movie: a camp guard barebacking the Bishop. The camera caresses the guard's muscular back and, when the sheet slips off, his beautiful buttocks. What has that to do with blood?