Love Meetings (1964)
Around the time that Pasolini was scouting locations for The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) he was also doing interviews all throughout Italy about the subject of sexuality. His intention was to get information and opinions from all different regions of the country, all different age groups, and all different social strata, so as to not only test the pulse of a subject not so openly discussed, but also to push those discussions right back to the public.
The first people we’re shown in the film interviewed by Pasolini are a group of boys who can’t be older than ten, and he asks them if they know where babies come from. Some of them dither while others don an impressive front, acting as if they know the answer. From there the director, interviewer, artist takes us on a mazelike journey through the cities and countrysides to gather reactions to the somewhat broad prompted questions. One of the adjectives that always gets attached to Pasolini as an artistic figure is ‘contradictory,’ but this collage of interviewees in the documentary softens the negative connotation of the term as applied to him. The people being interviewed all seem to have a code of ethics they live by, but they can’t help but be a little contradictory themselves. Occasionally arguments, or giant rallies behind a cause (like the illegalization of prostitution) break out on camera. Pasolini isn’t so much contradictory as he is a great acceptor of vagueness and discrepancies. He’s a person who doesn’t feel impelled to limit such contradictory content down to definite output when working creatively. Messages, doctrines, dogmas all take a backseat to a generation of feeling, as brought on by content that isn’t so easy to digest. In the era in which this documentary was made, sex wasn’t something that a lot of people discussed publicly, at least not when compared to today. It was something not yet being chewed out, and therefore was still ripe with contradictions. So this was a way for Pasolini to bring a subject that obviously had a lot of importance to him out on a platter in the most direct way he possibly could.
Porcile (1969), out of all movies from the director that I’ve seen, was the hardest to interpret. Seeing it during this film series was my first viewing, and part of what made it so difficult to understand—for myself at least—was that I was trying in some way to reconcile the two different storylines as a unity, and my constructed and abandoned theories probably delayed or ruined my overall comprehension the first time around.
The first storyline revolves around a nomad in an unknown ancient age wandering around a mountainous, volcanic landscape, and interacting with the vast unknown wilderness and its inhabitants. It relates to some primal, mythic, instinctual element in humanity, in which survival, sacrifice, cannibalism, and conquering are focal points. The nomad gets a few companions to roam the countryside with, but they’re captured by another larger group, and as he’s about to be put to death, after numerous fearless and naked displays of accepting his fate, he repeats the line over and over, “I killed my father, I ate human flesh, and I quiver with joy.” The other storyline is about a young man named Julian and a girl named Ida who live in either Germany or Italy during the 60s, Julian living with his rich industrialist father. The girl tries to get him to go to protest in Berlin, she being far more left wing than him, as well as far less apathetic. A mental sickness falls upon the boy at one point, and it’s left very vague. He comes out of it briefly only eventually to be eaten by pigs. At the time that this happens, the boy’s father is worried about being taken over by a much more vicious industrialist, and to save himself he merges with the larger corporate entity. All this culminates toward the end of the film where the boy’s death gets covered up. This latter section of the film, as a contrast to the ancient one, is extremely dialogue—especially conversation—heavy. The only thing that links the two sections together is probably the most recurring of Pasolini’s actors, Ninetto Davoli, appearing in both sections. When I was watching it, I kept thinking that the ancient section was a sort of interior landscape of Julian’s spirit or thought process, or something akin to a primal energy, embedded deep in his character, and that it was being acted out in front of us. That’s still my theory and the only reason I question it is because there wasn’t enough to reinforce that interpretation in the film.
With this film, after seeing it probably around five or six times now, I still don’t know where to begin discussing it, besides claiming it as the most horrific and unpleasant cinematic experience I have encountered. But that doesn’t mean that it lacks purpose or merit outside of simple shock value. It’s because it goes deeper than mere transgression flaunting that it remains after all these years so unsettling. If the content and spirit of this film hadn’t hit some profound truth through the sordid excursion of its creation and presentation, parts of the film wouldn’t have been stolen after its completion, and Pasolini wouldn’t have been murdered as a result of it. By exposing the capabilities that power can harness when allowed to function toward its more unmitigated forms, Pasolini made his most direct, potent, polished, and masterful of films, which ended his career and his life.
Catherine Breillat’s brief essay on the film, titled “I, Monster,” says more about the experience of happening upon Salò (1976) than I ever could. She begins her essay with the following:
It’s always the same when I tackle Pasolini—the first encounter escapes me. Pasolini doesn’t come at you head-on; it’s more like embroidery, which can seem simple, unrelentingly repetitive. So it went the first time I saw Salò. Of course, there’s that cold preamble; the roundup without pity or explanation is magnificent, but that kind of magnificence is nothing more than a chilling jolt to our consciousness.
Then comes the long intestinal progress. The body, the heart of the matter, is full of excrement. Yet that’s not where horror resides; that aversion—the repulsion for shit—was instilled in us from earliest childhood, so the long progress is familiar and repetitive, like our daily progress, I believed, already tired of what seemed a simplistic, somewhat childish provocation. So I thought, keeping a safe distance. But, of course, that’s exactly what’s at stake: the roots of good and evil in the virgin soil we all begin with, that soil made fertile, yes, fertile, by excrement.
I remember knowing about this movie for years before actually seeing it. Back in my late teens I was somewhat interested in film and I had recently started scouring the Criterion Collection catalogue and found that one of its earliest releases was this movie that on Ebay went for hundreds of dollars (before it got rereleased). Once it did get rereleased, after a friend told me he’d seen it in a theater and shook his head as he recounted his experience, I decided to buy it. On my first viewing I couldn’t watch the ending. Since then, I’ve managed to do it. As Breillat later elaborates in the same essay, “Aside from the fact that it’s a masterpiece—I understood this later—you have to approach this film as a rite of initiation, one that leads to the Round Table, the one where you have to dare to take your place on the granite to learn what your miserable or flamboyant fate will be.” She goes on to say that this film determines something about your soul by your reaction, and I agree. For me this movie marks a certain line or limit, at least in the arts. Watching it and processing it to the best of one’s capabilities of doing so for him- or herself forces one into another tier of understanding. The truths about the capabilities of our nature, of power and desire, that it reveals can be so shocking that they numb one over, get blocked out, or cause the viewer a great deal of suffering when trying to get fleshed out.
In the Dantean poetic tradition of layering Hell with circles, Pasolini inscribes his own system on Marquis de Sade’s inspirational content. The film starts with the ‘Antechamber of Hell,’ which goes through the gathering and judgment stages of their young captives. Following that is the ‘Circle of Obsessions,’ in which sexual customs get force-instructed on the slaves, and where the four fascist heads deepen their powerful grasp on the group. ‘Circle of Shit’ gets initiated as a punishment for a girl who cries over her dead mother, who tried saving her from being captured, and goes into full swing when all the kids are forced to save up their excrement inside themselves for one large feast. All are made to participate, even the ones in charge. The final section is ‘Circle of Blood,’ where all those who, in whatever way, did something to upset the heads get tortured to death in grueling detail in an open field, while the heads alternate and watch through binoculars from a window.
The music we hear at the beginning and ending credits of the film is the same song, called “These Foolish Things,” reinforcing the circular or spiral nature of the whole dark experience of human nature that gets focused on throughout. Pasolini before making Salò, fresh off his Trilogy of Life project, questioned whether his past ideals of sexual liberation, innocence as a saving grace, and adamant leftism were misguided or ultimately futile. Sex had become something disgusting to him, a trick that led to useless suffering. The true ideals of communism seemed hopeless, as expressed in the scene where Ezio gets caught in bed with the black maid, and as his protection against the fascists he sticks his fist in the air in a leftist salute, only to halt them for a second before they unload their guns on him. The true horror is the lack of a safe place, a safe moral or ethical system to effectively combat this limited environment of human capabilities. Simultaneously the torture and suffering seem anarchic and rigidly structured. The events of storytelling, dinner, weddings all have an air of planning and certitude to them, while the outbursts of the ravenous fascist heads spring upon the victims at any random moment, even if it interrupts a ceremony. Both polar extremes of possibilities, both political purities of left and right, have horrifying consequences, and both have the potential to be usurped and utilized by the hungry and immoral manifestation of power in the human being.
I’m the kind of person who likes to show shocking movies to newer friends. Blue Velvet (1986) is toward the lighter side of the shocking scale, and Pink Flamingos (1972), Gummo (1997), and Irréversible (2002) are toward the middle (the latter only being put there because after that most horrible of scenes, the second half of the movie feels very lighthearted). Salò, still, after all these years, has remained the ultimate shocking movie, the one you watch and continue to think ‘this can’t get any worse,’ and it continues to do so.