Screenshot from Salò

Anteinferno

In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Wilhelm Reich exposed a link between fascism and sexual repression. Fascism being the political manifestation of a sexuality that represses itself and celebrates its own repression. This repression begins within the family, and is then continued by outside institutions such as the church, being sealed and internalized. The repression becomes the core of the repressed worldview, it becomes axiomatic, obvious, reasonable, it becomes common sense, it becomes ideology. There’s no wonder why fascism attracts figures such as those of self-hating homosexuals.

We could cut fascism out of politics, labeling it as some sort of “anti-politics”. We could say that fascist leaders are always political outsiders or, if within politics, clowns. But that would be simplistic and serve far too well to erase responsibilities. Fascist leaders don’t arise on their own. Whether rising to power out of the blue or climbing the political ladder from a marginal position (see: Jair Bolsonaro), these figures have support and legitimization from the political establishment- Jesus Christ, they arrive to do the dirty work no one else wants to do.

Referring to fascism as foreign to politics only hides its causes.

Fascism is:

  • counter-revolutionary, the establishment’s way of preserving itself when a radical, profound change is demanded. It’s a pantomime of change.

  • the product of a contradiction between the ethos of democracy and the demands of the productive apparatus.

  • the consequence of political frustration.

  • the consequence of sexual frustration.

Returning to the figure of the self-hating homosexual invoked above: We know how repression resolves itself. When released, the manifestation of the impulse is chaotic, depraved and destructive. One who represses their sexuality, when giving up to it, won’t act the way a self-accepting, healthy individual would. Guilt, frustration and self-hatred breed vile creatures. Like the release of a frustrated sexuality is abhorrent, the release of frustrated politics is abhorrent.

Of course, this parallelism forces the conclusion that the political is personal and, therefore, deeply irrational. Fascism, with its virile, youthful aesthetics, its praise of power and its discourse’s Manichean assertiveness functions as catharsis for the repressed sexuality, as well as for political frustration.

To explore this link, I recommend reading Reich, for what interests me now, though related to Reich’s postulates, grows beyond them. It was reading Reich that motivated Sofía, a few nights ago, to invite me to watch Salò.

Salò as metaphor

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò or 120 Days of Sodom could be read simultaneously as an exploration, a metaphor and a sample. It’s a sample of the dynamics of fascism, a metaphor of fascist power over the individual, and a sample of how this dynamics operate. Its sample character is given by its realism, its historical contextualization within Nazi-occupied Italy, and the identification of the torturers (“the libertines”) as fascists.

It can be read as a metaphor because it can be read as a model of the dynamics between fascism and the people under it at a macro level. It’s a metaphor because it is a comparison.

Within the mansion, the rules are absurd, abhorrent and contradictory. The only consistent factor is the cruelty with which they’re applied.

The value of Salò as metaphor

"Sadomasochism is an eternal characteristic of man. It existed during de Sade's time, and it exists now. But that's not what matters most...The real meaning of the sex in my film is as a metaphor for the relationship between power and its subjects."
- Pier Paolo Pasolini

Dealing with a story under the assumption that it is a metaphor, as exposed in Sontag’s classic “Against Interpretation”, can obscure rather than enrich one’s understanding of a work.

One could argue that Salò is either metaphor or it is wasted. Under a literal reading, it often makes the “most shocking movies” lists of mid or low-tier websites.

While, as a metaphor of the mechanisms of power on the individual, Salò works with no further analysis necessary, saying that Salò is about fascism (and, therefore, about the legitimate brutal exercise of political power), requires a closer look.

For instance, while the victims of the on-screen fascists were kidnapped, the relationship between the direct victims of fascist sadism and their torturers is triangular. They are not there because the torturers chose them, but because their fellow citizens chose the fascists. If we delve into the detail that the storytellers played a key role in the victims’ kidnapping, and their stories arouse and provide motifs for the libertines’ sadism, we can say that the story-tellers are the people.

“The other” the fascists blame for their masters’ doing is already hated, is already endangered. Hitler didn’t invent antisemitism, Bolsonaro didn’t invent homophobia. They just materialized the abhorrent desire for vengeance against an easy target who didn’t do the harm to begin with.

The film’s final scene, wherein two of the kidnapped soldier boys are seen dancing to a radio song, talking about a girl, could be read as an example of the pockets of humanity that atrocity doesn’t stomp.

Thinking about sexuality or interpersonal relationships that seem to slip away from the torturers’ control, I can’t help but remember the secret lesbian romance whose swains The Duke shoots. That scene underlines the fact that the whole affair is not about sex, but about control. It’s not about promiscuity, but about power. Sexuality that is not for the enjoyment of “the libertines” is forbidden. Sexuality that doesn’t serve power is forbidden.

Aesthetics

Some of the most beautiful scenes in Salò have a highly saturated palette, much like its contemporary exploitation films. The subjects of the displayed tortures are young, beautiful, and often naked.

In a sense, the aesthetics of Salò are the aesthetics of Pasolini’s poetry, playing with death, desire deformed into pathology, and beautiful youth, and staged in the Italian countryside.

I can’t but remember what Nabokov considered to be the tragic core of art:

"Beauty plus pity-that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual."

The politics of Salò as aesthetic

Stories designed as metaphors might suffer from being mere montages, as emotionally profound or artistically valuable as hypothesis within an argumentative essay. This is not the casein Salò.

Even if we stubbornly decide to ignore the reading that sustains it, Salò shouldn’t be reduced to a senseless shock-piece. An apolitical reading doesn’t have to be a flat, face-value reading. Salò as aesthetic, as the torturing of beautiful youth is still an allegory, but of the death of beauty. Beauty, like the victims “dies a thousand deaths”. Salò could also be about coming of age.

But, anyway, why would we want an apolitical Salò?

Salò as literal is either absurd or, like some horror theorists have proclaimed, a stark attempt at pushing the limits of the displayable, of the tolerable, of film as an art form. For some weeks, I’ve been dedicating laughably short lapses to the fine work necessary to write about Peter Sotos. The core of the piece is a question: “Does Peter Sotos matter?” If we’re to approach Salò as literal, this question applies as well.


This text is now available in Spanish, on Nada Respetable.