Endgames of Neoliberalism

February 6, 2009

So I finally got the chance to watch Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, a week or so ago.  It was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last film (he was subsequently murdered) and is an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom to Fascist Italy in 1944.  

You can probably surmise the goings-on from the source material or else you already know the film by its reputation, but to sum up: four high-level libertines kidnap a few dozen teenagers of both genders to a pleasure palace where the youths are sodomized, forced to eat shit, and tortured.  It’s justifiably been labeled one of the most extreme movies out there, though not because of any Hostel-style violence or gore; instead, it’s the icy matter-of-factness and inexorable conclusion that gives it its revolting sting.

It’s also a great, nuanced, subtle critique of neoliberalism then flowering in 1970s Italy and how facism was less of an interruption of than a step in the progress of the establishment of a rule-based consumer culture of arbitrary democracy and a devout populace.   This is easy to miss among all the shock, but there are a few things to look out for.  The main thing is that (in my opinion) the film isn’t about the libertines or their captives but, instead, about the guards forced into service to keep order.  They start out dressed like blackshirts and are pulled away from their homes just like the youths, but gradually they become complicit with the proceedings and as they do, any trace of organized fascism gives way to a jaded generation of fashionable, middle-class youths who know only to follow the rules as they are, not to wonder about why the rules are as such. 

This is all brought home in a stunning final scene in which two of the guards awkwardly dance to a tune on the radio while out in the courtyard the captives are being tortured and killed.   Their indifference and casualness is haunting, and in its own way as chilling as anything going on in the courtyard, of which we only get glimpses. 

Pasolini talked about the connection of the film to neocapitalism/neoliberalism, and it’s the connection made between the “anarchy of power” he describes and the smooth running of post-fascist society that stays with me after the shocking images have faded.   One of the most thought-provoking films I’ve ever seen.

The film is available from Criterion Collection if you can track down a copy; it’s well worth it if you can get your hands on a copy.  Not for the feint of heart, though, obvs.


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