Pasolini and Sade: A Maleficent Obsession

By Stephen Barber

salo-pier-paolo-pasolini.jpgSalò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975

Pasolini’s Sade

“Death does determine life, I feel that, and I’ve written it, too, in one of my recent essays, where I compare death to film-montage. Once life is finished, it acquires a sense; up to that point it has not got a sense; its sense is suspended and therefore ambiguous… For me, death is the maximum of epicness and myth.” – Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968

October 2008 marks the publication of the first new translation for 40 years (and the first-ever complete translation) of the Marquis de Sade’s legendary 120 Days of Sodom – ‘the book that dominates all books’, as Georges Bataille wrote, and a seminal inspiration for filmmakers from Luis Buñuel onwards. Alongside an extract from the new translation, Stephen Barber looks at Pier Paolo Pasolini’s excavation of 120 Days of Sodom for his final film, Salò.

During the production in 1975 of what would be his ultimate film, Salò – adapted from Sade’s novel 120 Days of Sodom and transposed to the final moments of the collapsing fascist dictatorship in mid-1940s Italy – the filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini often asserted that he wanted that film to be ‘the last movie’: not only his own last movie, but also that of the entire human species: a film of terminal images, before the processes of cultural and social erasure which Pasolini incessantly denounced had engulfed and nullified the visual image entirely. The images of Salò – revelatory of the structures of cruelty and of the sexual origins of human atrocities and massacres – would then form a kind of malign legacy, left for any non-human species which, at some point in the future, might want to look back upon the memories and obsessions of the human species.

The concept of the ‘last film’ was one that attracted many other filmmakers during the era of tumultuous upheaval, revolutionary terrorism and worldwide violence that extended from the mid-1960s to the late-1970s; in the USA, the actor-director Dennis Hopper had already adopted that notion of a ‘last movie’ for the film-title of his seminal, drug-disintegrated masterwork of 1971. Like his contemporary, the West German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pasolini was perpetually announcing his abandonment of filmmaking, while simultaneously planning another film-project that would push beyond the extreme limit of his current film. For Pasolini, that film beyond-the-end was to have been a project entitled Porno-Teo-Kolossal, which was in preparation to be shot in the first months of 1976. However, Salò would mark the end of Pasolini’s work – shortly after he had finished editing it, he was savagely murdered in a wasteland near Rome by a seventeen-year-old hustler. In his death, and in his final act as a filmmaker with Salò, Pasolini confirmed a declaration he had made in an interview several years earlier: “I love life fiercely, desperately. And I believe that this fierceness, this desperation will carry me to the end… How will it all end? I don’t know.”

Salò was a terminal aberration in Pasolini’s work, in more than one way. He almost always wrote his film-scripts directly from his own imagination, and rarely adapted source-material (apart from Sade, Pasolini only used the Bible, as the catalyst for his 1964 film The Gospel According to Matthew). The initial idea for a film based on 120 Days of Sodom originated with the project’s producer, Alberto Grimaldi, who had had an immense success with Last Tango in Paris, directed three years earlier by Bernardo Bertolucci; after the scandalous triumph of the scene in that film in which Brando’s character sodomises his lover’s butter-smeared rectum, Grimaldi appears to have become convinced that a film based on Sade’s epic enumerations of acts of sexual (or anti-sexual) obsession and violence would be an even greater success. Once Pasolini had taken on the project, at the beginning of 1975, he researched it intensively; alongside Sade’s own work, he read essays on Sade by Georges Bataille (notably, Bataille’s preface to Sade’s book), Roland Barthes, Pierre Klossowski and Maurice Blanchot, as well as conducting research into the last phase of Italian fascism. Pasolini moved the action of the novel in time, to the period 1944-45; he also re-located the action geographically, from an impregnable, mountain-top castle in Switzerland to a salubrious lake-side villa in the resort town of Salò, overlooking a bay on the Riviera Bresciana, on the banks of Lake Garda in northern Italy. It was in Salò that the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (who had held power since the year of Pasolini’s birth, 1922) established his short-lived ‘Republic of Salò’.

The Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom details the acts of four atheistic Parisian ‘libertines’ who possess the wealth and power to realise a plan to have sixteen aristocratic young boys and girls kidnapped from their homes, and brought to an isolated castle, the Castle of Silling; accompanied by four story-tellers and eight ‘cockmongers’, the libertines spend four months inflicting an escalating series of sexual tortures on the boys and girls, before finally slaughtering them and returning to Paris. Sade completed his account of the first of the four months, November, while imprisoned for acts of debauchery at the Bastille prison in Paris in 1785. However, the remaining three parts of the book (for the months of December to February) were only written in the form of notational, raw fragments: skeletal enumerations of the acts undertaken by the libertines, and cryptic summaries of the accompanying story-tellers’ narratives. It appears that Sade intended to publish the first part of the book separately, and then to complete each of the three other parts as the publication progressed; however, the manuscript, written on a long scroll of paper, was lost during the revolutionary riots of 1789, and only re-discovered in the early twentieth century.

violated-angels-koji-wakamatsu.jpgViolated Angels, 1967

An extract from 120 Days of Sodom


124. This libertine buggers a father whose two children must stand and watch; as he ejaculates, he plunges a knife into one child’s heart and with his other hand snaps its sibling’s neck.
125. This libertine used to content himself by lashing the bellies of pregnant whores. Now, he assembles six bitches whose term has gone eight months and ties them back to back, their bellies thrusting forward; he splits open the first with a razor, the second with dagger thrusts, gives a hundred kicks to the third, crushes the fourth with a hundred club-blows, burns the fifth, and applies an industrial rasp to the sixth. Those who survive he finishes off with a spiked truncheon.
126. This libertine assembles two nuns each week. He gives the first a choice: renounce God, and all religion, or die. But he has previously instructed his valet to whisper to her, warning her to say nothing or she shall surely be killed. Thus she remains mute; the libertine blows her brains out with a musket, crying out: “There’s one for God!” The second nun, stunned by what she has witnessed, is quick to blaspheme and renounce God in the hope of saving her life; the libertine blows her head off as well: “And there’s one for the Devil!”
127. An arch sodomist is fond of giving dances, but rigs the ballroom so that the ceiling collapses halfway through the evening, crushing all the revellers; he moves from city to city indulging this whim, and is only discovered after his fiftieth ball.

120 Days of Sodom, newly translated by James Havoc, is published by Solar Books, together with the forthcoming Sadomania: Sade and Cinema, edited by Jack Hunter. Pasolini’s Salò is released on DVD from the BFI.