Temper Democratic
How exceptional is Australia?
Humphrey McQueen

A refusal to consume
The conventions of the commercial screen are against informed viewing. Because cinema and television are mass entertainment producers assume that films should be easy for everybody to follow. Piero Paolo Pasolini rejected cultural illiteracy in 1975 by including a reading list in his opening credits for Salo. Books by Simone de Beauvoir and Roland Barthes did more than acknowledge the film-maker's debts. They were homework for the viewers.

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 French would behave like the audience with whom I watched the 1983 revival of Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927)? These 3500 Parisians divided into factions to applaud or boo Danton or St Just, Corday or Marat, the moment they appeared on any of the three screens. How many Anglo-Celts recognised the mole that emerged at the end of Bertolucci's 1900 as a quotation from Marx on the revolution's burrowing underground?

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 directionless.

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 Germans had rescued him from an Allied prison. The republic of Salo was a Nazi puppet state, quite different from the home-grown fascist dictatorship that had ruled from 1922, the year of Pasolini's birth. Pasolini himself had lived his early manhood under Salo's edicts, and his young brother died there in an intra-partisan brawl. To that extent, at least, this last film was autobiographical.

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.[1]

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 self-defence. For the scandal merchants, the film became further evidence that Pasolini was a corrupter of youth, as well as of society, who had got what he deserved, whether at the hands of a neo-fascist gang or from a lone attacker.

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.'[2] 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 Naples.[3] 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 profane.

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 human epoch'.[4] He warned contemporary youths against complicity in their own genocide:

O unfortunate generation
you'll weep, but lifeless tears
because you may not even be able to go back
to what, not having had it, you haven't even lost.[5]

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 for Florence, so Pasolini would cry woe to Rome. Dante is considered a moral improver, although the torments he depicted are as gruesome as any in Pasolini. Like many a public transgressor, Pasolini was a stern moralist. Before he took over the direction of Salo, his own thoughts for his next film tended towards a life of Paul of Tarsus, whom he believed to have been a fellow homosexual.

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 the radio.

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 forgotten.

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 American technologies.

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.[6] 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.[7]

Salo's long 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 consumerism.

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 mass marketing.[8]

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 and shooting.[9] 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 looking on.

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.[10]

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.

Apologists for 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.[11]

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’.[12] 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 consume.[13] 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.[14] 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 fastidious auteur.

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:

Now I have done a film called Salo, in which one sees terrible things, which in reality, taken one at a time, would be pornography, taken out of context; but in context I believe that they are not, because the context is that of the commodification which power has made of bodies, that is the reduction of bodies to things, which Hitler did in the physical sense of the word and which today's new power has done in the sense of genocide, as I said before.[15]

[1] Enzo Siciliano, Pasolini. A Biography, Bloomsbury, London, 1987, p. 368;
Barth David Schwartz, Pasolini Requiem, Pantheon, New York, 1992, p.647;
Sam Rohdie, The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1995, pp. 90-1, 171-2.

[2] Quoted Schwartz, op. cit., p. 663. See also Who on earth is Tom Baker?, Harper Collins, London, 1997, pp. 137-44.

[3] Patrick Rurnble, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life. Allegories of Contamination, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1996.

[4] Maurizio Viano, A Certain Realism. Making Use of Pasolini's Film Theory and Practice, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993, p. 296

[5] Schwartz, op. cit., p. 351.

[6] Quoted ibid., p. 659.

[7] Pier Paolo Pasolini, Lutheran Letters, Carcanet New Press, Manchester, 1983, pp. 25-6.

[8] ln May 1961 the Italian artist Piero Manzoni tinned and marketed his own shit in autographed and numbered tins.

[9] Quoted in Schwartz, op. cit., p. 658.

[10] Henry Scott Stokes, The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima, Tuttle, Tokyo, 1975, p. 43.

[11] Oswald Stack, Pasolini on Pasolini: interviews with Oswald Stack, Thames & Hudson, London, 1969, pp. 77-87.

[12] Marshall Berman, AII that is solid melts into air. The Experience of Modernity, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1982, chapter 2.

[13] Naomi 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.

[14] Schwartz, op. cit., p. 629.

[15] Ibid., p. 631.