Beyond its blatant depravity, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), feels like a bad omen of contemporary society. In this re-imagining of Marquis de Sade’s novel, four fascists in Italy’s short-lived Republic of Salò of 1943 act out their darkest desires on helpless prisoners in a villa. The ensuing acts of, among other things, rape, coprophagia or torture, in a roundabout way shed light on the solipsistic indifference rampant in today’s COVID-19 times, since governments worldwide remove protective measures while at the moment the WHO still considers the virus a public health emergency.
Director Pier Paolo Pasolini likens his film to a crystal in the documentary Pasolini Next to Us (2006), and it does feel as polished and sharp as one. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli shoots with a precise clarity, often positioning the camera at an objectifying distance which encloses all characters within the mansion’s walls. The victims remain as anonymous as they are treated, even when they despair. What drives the four fascists never gets revealed either. When one of them (Aldo Valetti) gets on all fours during dinner hoping to get sodomized by a raping soldier, his face contorts into a devilish grin which expresses a purely mechanical pleasure. As such the film feels stripped of psychological resonance.
Female narrators recount their most wanton sexual experiences to excite the wicked four in a narrative framed as a descent into hell, with chapters named circles. A pianiste accompanies them with lively Chopin pieces. Thanks to such a contrast the narrator’s proclamations drip of scathing irony, foreshadowed by the jubilant music during the opening credits. The satire culminates in provocation when two young guards dance with each other at the ending to provide a sardonic counterpoint to all depravity.
It fits with how Pasolini turns all wickedness into banality. Near the end the fascists in turn peek at scenes of torture from a distance, as if those scenes amount to cheap entertainment. Their absolute power comes in the form of arbitrary ritual, especially exemplified when one of them gets dressed in garments reminiscent of Pasolini’s ancient Greece from Medea (1969). Every decision seems driven by caprice, as if they play with toys using made up rules. When they inspect the behinds of their victims, the business-like attitude of their examination in an empty room frightens.
Throughout every moment permeates the horror of exercised power. It reduces everything to a mere object purely evaluated for its utilitarian qualities. Every act is one of consumption. All elements of Salò feel metaphorical, but something visceral shines through its crystalline composition. The continuous reification that takes place within the film turns political power and economic consumption into an experience. Here, reality enters through the abstract.
At its heart Salò charges a profoundly spiritual attack on modern society, where forces of commodification and technological complexity strip people of dignity. It plays like a nightmare (while war planes ominously rush over the house in a touch of sophisticated sound design). This may be what the father of Teorema (1968) shouts at in horror as he runs around stark naked on the top of Mount Etna.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a nightmare too, even though its rupture of societal arrangements proved to be short-lived. Learning to live with the coronavirus turns out to be the vague shibboleth of contemporary times. In practice, many countries have a continuous stream of excess deaths, increasing staff shortages in essential services and increasing cases of chronic illness through long COVID. All the while they show a callous disregard for the lives of the elderly and other higher risk groups. It feels like a downward spiral not unlike that precipitated by the narrating Signoras of Salò.
That the coronavirus actually presented society with choices has been long cast to the wayside. The option exists to enact protective measures that would prevent many of the adverse effects and which would empower all to live fulfilling lives. As for instance the WHO guidelines or the Lancet COVID-19 committee recommend, vaccinations plus things like improving ventilation in buildings or wearing face masks in public spaces would vastly improve the situation for everyone. Instead, spearheaded by countries like the Netherlands or the United Kingdom, the world has chosen to do close to nothing culminating in a current pervading sense that the pandemic is over when the number of excess deaths and long covid cases in 2022 says otherwise.
Although companies and governments have incentives to let it rip, one has to ask why populations let them – beyond those “essential workers” that are forced into unsafe situations in order to pay their bills. Salò enters the discussion here with its stark spiritual charges.
Karl Polanyi warned against attempts to disembed the economy from its wider social contexts – but those attempts only ramped up, leading to the current situation around the pandemic. A general indifference to suffering now suffuses society where every interaction feels as stripped of psychology as in Salò. Like within that film’s mansion, other people become means towards one’s personal ends based on purely individualistic calculus. In a society perpetuated by an endless cycle of production and consumption ruled by technology, solipsism replaces solidarity. Philosopher Éric Sadin deems it the era of the I-tyrant. Within an individual’s personally imagined world, everything merely exists to further one’s own goals.
In such a society the simple act of wearing a face mask in a hospital becomes an insurmountable task. It shows how little value is being placed on the elderly and other more vulnerable groups, who visit that place the most and can use a COVID-19 infection the least of all. That there has been nary a memorial to commemorate the so-called end of the pandemic and those fallen during it shows the lack of care in society. In the Netherlands for instance, the public debate centers around the annoyance of protective measures. Instead of mourning, most would rather go dance like the guards at the end of the film while destruction happens in the background.
With the individual conceptualized as either a provider of labor power within production or a money spender within consumption, all interactions can only be seen through the lens of the exercise of power. During a pandemic, every person becomes a potential vector for spreading the disease. Yet that potential individual power and the concurrent need for societal action now gets ignored wholesale.
Ultimately however, no one will exercise power over their own lives anymore. Even the fascists in Salò ultimately are solely driven by capricious desires, like our society of I-tyrants cannot look beyond what is deemed normal. In the meantime more and more people will succumb to COVID-19 through death or chronic illness while the more vulnerable among us are forced to socially isolate. We toss people aside like the fascists in Salò tossed aside those they deemed used up.
Societies did face a choice to step away from this path that Pasolini satirized so forcefully in his film. To treat all with dignity. But many picked the easier option of continuous consumption unbothered by the few statistics that authorities still care to share and thereby absolving them of responsibility. The coprophagia dinners may have been about a consumptive attitude, but in these times that metaphor deserves an update. We breathe in the virus like they eat shit. Society as a whole may yearn to return to normal, but Salò reminds us we then run headlong for our chains.
Sjoerd van Wijk is a Dutch film and music critic, writer and filmmaker. He currently lives in Nijmegen.