In 2016 it seems almost antiquated to refer to a piece of fiction as dangerous. Words like “shocking” or “disturbing” have become so overused that they’re now only good for adorning horror movie posters. But there are still films like Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom that retain an aura of real power, a fear that they might not just be disturbing, but literally dangerous.
Salo is an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s still banned novel set in 1943’s Salo, the seat of government for the Italian Social Republic. Four corrupt libertines (named the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate and the President) hole up in a villa during the fall of Mussolini’s Nazi-backed puppet state and visit unspeakable suffering upon a group of sixteen teenagers. The problem is that these crimes don’t remain unspoken, instead they are depicted vividly. Over the course of the film, the children are tortured, raped, force fed faeces and murdered en masse.
The perceived artistic function of depicting such brutality has proved a moral rorschach test since the film’s 1975 release, especially for censors. In 1993, the Australian Classification Board said that Salo’s “themes and depictions occur in the context of a film which is unambiguously anti-violence and makes a strong statement about the abuse of power… [it is] a film of considerable artistic merit”. The Australian Classification Review Board then immediately overturned the decision to allow it an R18+ rating, claiming that the film, “depicted cruelty… Violence is usually defined as physical force inflicted with the intent to seriously hurt or kill, or the outcome of such. Cruelty on the other hand involves delight in the infliction of, or indifference to another’s pain.” It is perceived that director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s sin is not so much the depiction of death or even suffering, but the suggestion that joy could be taken in inflicting it. “Idiot, did you really think we would kill you?” The Duke heckles his young victim during the film, “Don’t you see we want to kill you a thousand times, to the limits of eternity, if eternity could have limits?” Whether this line represents the late director’s sadism or his utter disgust with fascistic violence remains up for debate.
Salo has the unfortunate honour of being banned on three separate occasions in Australia. In 1976 it was refused classification for “indecency”. In 1993 this decision was overturned and Salo was awarded an R18+ rating, on the provision it could only be screened theatrically. A promotional poster from that time read provocatively, “Now, for the first time, Australian audiences have the opportunity to judge one of the most controversial films in the history of cinema. A work of rigorous moral intelligence or a descent into a nightmare of cruelty and lust?” When attempts were made in 1998 to distribute it on DVD the classification board rebanned the film for containing “gratuitous, exploitative and offensive depictions of sexual activity accompanied by abhorrent practices”. Interestingly, this isn’t so much an accusation as a statement of fact, like saying that The Fast and the Furious depicts gun violence and unsafe driving.
The film was finally given an R18+ rating in 2010. When the Australian Christian Lobby and Liberal Senator Julian McGauran appealed, the board defended their decision on the grounds that “The film has aged plus there is bonus material that clearly shows it is fiction.” As if people were confused as to whether this colour film set in 1945 with a “written by” credit was a documentary. It speaks to the paranoia surrounding the film that viewers were believed to need this context to insulate them from its dark power. It’s likely that Salo’s critics would agree with the character of The Magistrate on at least one point: “Nothing is more contagious than evil.”
This Monday The Astor will be screening Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom and you can decide for yourself: work of rigorous moral intelligence or a descent into a nightmare of cruelty and lust?