Pasolini: the filth and the fury

When Pier Paulo Pasolini was murdered in 1975, his last film, Salo, had just been wrapped. It went on to cause outrage. But why is it still in the news?
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Pasolini's last film, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom is "news that stays news", to use a favourite maxim of the late Allen Ginsberg, when asked to produce a definition of art. And Salo (ageing and lustful Italian nazi chiefs conduct ritualised sex-torture of youths and girls in a country house at the end of the Second World War ) continues to be in the news after almost 25 years of being censored, banned and reviled all around the world.

Pasolini's last film, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom is "news that stays news", to use a favourite maxim of the late Allen Ginsberg, when asked to produce a definition of art. And Salo (ageing and lustful Italian nazi chiefs conduct ritualised sex-torture of youths and girls in a country house at the end of the Second World War ) continues to be in the news after almost 25 years of being censored, banned and reviled all around the world.

Amid rumours that the British Board of Film Classification is poised to give it a certificate for the first time ever, the ICA is hosting a daylong conference to try to establish just why Salo is so irrationally hated. And just why it's still so potent, so wildly controversial, after all these years.

Cut to London, 1977. A faintly sleazy dive in Old Compton Street is raided in a police bust. Officers confiscate the film Salo and caution the cinema-owner he will be prosecuted for peddling indecent material (the exact charge remains unclear - in 1994, a Cincinnati bookshop was fined $500 for "attempted pandering" after police snatched a VHS of Salo from the bookshop's shelves). The trouble was that BBFC chief James Ferman had actually given the club permission to screen the movie. A red-faced Ferman made a delicate phone call to the Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions.

A compromise, cut-down version (usually identified as the "club edit") was agreed on for public viewings in the future; it used a somewhat portentous voice-over to contextualise the movie ("it would be naive to think that what happened in Salo will never happen again," intones the epilogue) on a purely historical level. It was well-meaning, but essentially ridiculous: nowadays you can successfully read Salo as a virulent attack on contemporary corporations, marketing and consumerism. As a history lesson, it really means very little.

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith was a key film expert brought in to brief the BBFC on how distributors of Salo might defend themselves in the event of a court action. "I still don't like it as a film," says Nowell-Smith, "but if you accept that a work of art has a right to be ugly, then it has to be defended."

Nowadays, we only ever expect to be given pleasure by films. You have to remember that back in 1975, artists had the right to challenge their audience - indeed, there was a non-hedonistic belief that artists should actually make you suffer. David Sin, the head of cinema at the ICA, concurs. "There are no longer the great artists working in cinema - except maybe Kiarostami - that critics all over the world would rally round. But Salo has to be defended, even if it is difficult to like. It is perfectly intellectually coherent to have respect for a film without necessarily liking it."

Sin goes on to note that Salo is especially interesting to film buffs since it was "was really as far as the European art-house film could go, and I think that's still the case." But what's also notable about Salo is that critics from all over the world didn't rally round to support it. It divided critical consensus on a major director for the first time, and broke it so absolutely that there has been little consensus ever since. Pasolini was hated by everyone, left- and right-wing alike. Even French intellectuals jumped ship, outraged that Pasolini had taken such liberties with their great libertarian De Sade (on whose tract, 120 Days of Sodom, the film is based).

It has always amused me that no-one has ever owned up to wholeheartedly liking Salo, not even edgy counter-culturalist Gary Indiana. In fact, I long to hear someone say "I like the film but won't defend it". The publication of Indiana's spirited analysis of Salo this week, under the BFI imprint, seems yet another indication that there are moves afoot to liberate the film from legal limbo (I can't help wondering if its adrift status doesn't smack of pique - no government appointee like Ferman likes to look silly).

After recounting his repeated early viewings of the film in LA in 1977, while working in a Legal Aid department, Indiana admits to conflicting emotions. "I love Salo and I hate it," he hisses. He goes on, in more conventional mode: "If there is much to admire about him [Pasolini], there is a good deal less to genuinely like..."

Americans - unacculturated to the idea of secular ritual, and subliminally puritanical to boot - routinely abhor Salo (all the Anglo-Saxon countries have made the most fuss about it). I like Salo: not for its torture scenes, but for its humanity, its scalding hatreds, and for its ability to renew itself for every generation.

Adam Roberts from FilmFour - another key figure in the attempt to get Salo released uncut - has his own views as to why no one likes Pasolini, not even his greatest supporters who routinely defend him. "He was Marxist, gay and made films which protested that the world was generated only through ritual acts," Roberts observes. "It's almost blasphemous. In Salo you are confronted with despair, and Pasolini gives you nowhere to hide."

Roberts also theorises that what still disturbs people is not so much the hardcore sex acts (including orgies, the eating of faeces, torture and death) but the intact social message. "These elderly nazis rounding up young people for their pleasure can be directly applied to film-making itself," Roberts notes, a trifle wryly. "What does Hollywood do except procure the young who are then used and tortured onscreen for the pleasure of the audience?"

The trouble with Salo is that it is inextricably bound up with the circumstances of Pasolini's death, a few months after the film wrapped in 1975, murdered on the dunes of Ostia outside Rome by a youth he had picked up for casual sex. Such was the feeling against the director - who had antagonised everyone in Italy from the Pope downwards - that the editor of Oggi suggested that when Pasolini's murderer Giuseppe Pelosi was put on trial, Salo would form "by far the most serious accusation against the director".

This was exactly what happened. Attorneys acting for Pelosi successfully used the existence of Salo to highlight a supposed moral turpitude in the director - and, more outrageously, a tendency to violence. Jean-Paul Sartre was so horrified by the progress of the prosecution - which acquitted Pelosi - that he wrote a letter to the court pleading that they not "put Pasolini on trial". It was the beginning of the end for liberal intellectual consensus over the arts in Europe.

Salo isn't really a film any more - it's a meta-film, a symbol, a libertarian clarion call from less complex times. Most of all, it has come to represent Pasolini in his very essence - yet a Pasolini at his grimmest and most unhappy, as if none of the Trilogy of Life films.counted for anything. Uncompromising as it is, no wonder the critique contained in this film still flusters our priggish politicians - to such an extent that they still seek to repress it or emasculate it. What other film has such a history of global contention? When Salo was unbanned in Australia in 1993 and then rebanned in 1998, The Sunday Age in Melbourne noted that the event "marks a regression into the infantilism and paternalism of the past", observing that of the grandees who had decided to restore the censorship "only one had actually bothered to see the film".

But as Salo points out: if you form a contract with elderly power-brokers, expect them to use you for their pleasure. Salo is news that stays news, an old film still talked about in parliaments decades after its director died. As Pasolini once wrote in a poem: "Death lies not/ in being unable to communicate/ but in the failure to continue being understood."

'Pasolini's "Salo": too the limit' is at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1 (020-7930 3647) today and tomorrow. 'Salo' will be screened tonight at 8.30pm, introduced by Gary Indiana (tickets £20 in combination with conference on Saturday, 10am-4pm); and tomorrow at 4.30pm, introduced by James Ferman (£8)

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