DOWSE guide to the movies                                                                                         

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  Book Review


DOWSE Guide to the Movies
by Tony Lee editor of Pigasus Press

BFI Modern Classics: Salò
or the 120 Days of Sodom

Gary Indiana
BFI Publishing chapbook, 96 pages 7.99
review by Gary Couzens

Pier Paolo Pasolini's last film, Salò, is a film very hard to be indifferent about. I saw it in 1985, in my first year at Southampton University. It's a loose adaptation of the Marquis de Sade's novel, updated to Word War II Italy (Salò was a fascist puppet republic). Four dignitaries - a nobleman, a banker, a judge and a bishop - round up several young men and women and subject them to degradation and finally torture and death. Pasolini's camera looks blankly at all this. It's a film that many find difficult, if not impossible to watch. At Southampton University, despite the print being in poor condition and a cut version (of which more later), Salòprobably held the record for walkouts in all my time there, and questions were asked about it in the Students' Union.
 Salò is inevitably coloured by Pasolini's death - murdered by a homosexual pickup - after the film was completed. Gary Indiana explores the background to Pasolini's ideas, and his stance (gay, Marxist academic) which made him a permanent irritant to the Italian establishment. His critiques of society were born from a deep pessimism that nothing would change: it's possible to read Salò as an allegory of consumer culture, "where a limitless choice of gratifications disguises and absence of all choice and all resistance", art becomes product and people (the victims in Salò are barely characterised) into things.
 Gary Indiana is an American writer, and hence there's no account of Salò as landmark in censorship history that a British perspective would bring. Rejected by the BBFC, the film was shown under club conditions before being raided by the police. As a result, the version allowed to be shown in the UK (still under club conditions) was cut by seven minutes, with a four-minute prologue added. That was the version I saw in 1985. Since its initial release, films are now covered by the Obscene Publications Act, and - as then BBFC Secretary James Ferman, a great admirer of the film, has argued - a tendency to shock and revolt is not the same as to deprave and corrupt. Just about all the material in Salò has been passed since in other films. Also, artistic merit can be used as a defence: critical opinion may be divided but there are enough who would defend this film. At the time of writing, it is due a cinema and video release, and has been resubmitted to the BBFC, but their decision has yet to be made.

Gary Couzens

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