NEOREALISM WAS THE KEY INFLUENCE IN POST-WAR ITALIAN CINEMA. ITS STATED AIM WAS TO BRING AUDIENCES TO ‘THINK ABOUT REALITY PRECISELY AS IT IS’ (ZAVATTINI).
I was twenty, not even – eighteen,
nineteen… and I had been alive for a century,
a whole lifetime
consumed by the pain of the fact
that I would never be able to give my love
if not to my hand, or to the grass of ditches
or maybe to the earth of an unguarded tomb…
Twenty and, with its human history and its cycle
of poetry, a life had ended.
(from Pier Paolo Pasolini, A Desperate Vitality)
On the one hand, without a doubt neorealism was the key influence in post-war Italian cinema.
On the other hand, post-war cinema, on a more European level, developed by a great deal as cinema d’auteur (let us think of Les Cahiers, the New Wave, and their weight in the cinematic culture up to, and especially in, the ‘70s). What we have here is a means of escaping that categorisation, that boxing that seems to be a need of the human mind, in order to make things easier to understand. If we look at cinema as the product of each time a different auteur, then a completely new universe opens up, and we are drawn to look at each film in a personal, fresh and revolutionary, it is hoped, way. Therefore the filmmaker becomes the person who is able to provoke us to reflect on any given issue he/she is interested in portraying. At times, the subject matter of a script will ask for eclectic, shocking new forms of representation. This was the case of Pasolini in Salo’.
Then, was Pasolini a neorealist? To what extent, if to any, can Salo’ be considered a neorealist film? Neorealism as an informal set of cinematic practices and motives was officially short-lived, ‘outlawed’ in 1949 by the Andreotti Law. Most post-war Italian movies then could not be officially considered neorealist. Yet, many of them are. Salo’ was made in 1975, last of a prolific career. Before its release, Pasolini was killed, by the same boys with whom he shared his ‘secret’ life. Pasolini is usually not considered one of the major exponents of neorealism, even though some of his movies are seen as neorealist, in the use, for example, of non-professional actors and real-life settings (let us think of Accattone (1961) and The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)). A life lived on the edge, his movies living on the edge too.
What I will try to show in this piece is that, whilst at a first glance Salo’ is not an example of neorealism, if we look at it and the motives its subject matter spring from, we could see it as neorealist. Pasolini pushed himself and his audience to contemplate matters of the deepest tragicalness and horror, and to stick to pre-established cinematic conventions would have not resulted in the masterpiece Salo’ is. I will also look closely at the mis-en-scene in the film, highlighting those practices that could be seen as neorealist. The emphasis will be on my personal responses to the film, it goes without saying, and it could not be otherwise, in that with a movie like Salo’ a great personal involvement is needed to understand the message and not shut our eyes in front of its on-screen brutality. As a matter of fact, unfortunately, an on-screen brutality portraying a real and on-going off-screen brutality.
Zavattini talks about a cinema whose purpose is to bring audiences to ‘think about reality precisely as it is.’ Before I embark myself in the discussion, I believe I need to turn to the ancient Greek sophists, and ask them to follow me through the process, in the need of negotiating the terms. Indeed, discussing ‘reality’ and ‘realistic’ portrayal of ‘reality’ is most arduous intellectual effort. What is this thing called reality? Is that a question, in the sense that is answerable, or is it merely a question grammatically? We would need a separate essay, or probably two, to circumscribe the realm of the upcoming arguments, putting them into context, defining the terms we use. But that would be a far too theoretical matter, and we would end up in a sterile discussion. I have searched for a number of definitions of reality, and so far the one that I find in most enlightening to our purpose is that given by Williams, seen, in contemporary terms, ‘not as static appearance but as the movement of psychological or social or physical forces; realism is then a conscious commitment to understanding and describing these. It then may or may not include realistic description or representation of particular features.’
So, what was the ‘reality’, the movement of psychological or social or physical forces Pasolini was trying to portray in Salo’? As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith says, ‘Pasolini made this film in order to disturb people, in order to make them face up to something he felt they were unwilling to confront but was nevertheless real and inescapable, the relationship between sex, death and power.’ Salo’ is therefore the expression of the ‘idea’ at the basis of fascism and its power relations, the filmic representation of the imagery of barbarism. Pasolini wanted to show what power looks like, in its degenerate forms, to show the horrors of the underworld when it comes to the surface. In order to do this, Pasolini went to the extreme, showing the ‘real’ extreme reality of power. What he is doing is showing us the ‘abject’, right there and then, in order to move us. In 1982 Julia Kristeva published a book called The Powers of Horror, in which she introduces a revisited concept of the ‘abject’. Watching Salo’ reminded me of my reading of it, as of those discourses on the artistic and sometime cathartic, surely denunciative, function of the representation of the ‘abject’. Pasolini needed to recreate a nearly surreal, mythical environment and to show the wretched, the horrific, the disgusting, the shit and piss and blood, in order to get us, the audience, to feel disgusted, as we would feel when realising the reality of the horrors of power.
To borrow from Lukacs in his essays on Thomas Mann, I would suggest that we see the subject matter of Salo’ as ‘humanism against barbarism’, even though what is shown mostly is barbarism. This precisely because at the times (Salo’ is set in the last years of fascism, 1944-5) there was very little humanism. We, the audience, are asked to be already endowed of a certain amount of humanism to read through the lines of the film. Yet, the critique does not only refer to those times, but to all times, and surely Pasolini’s contemporary Italy. It is the critique of a world where the governing classes, the bourgeoisie, have proved not to be able to be the carriers of humanism. The same dilemma was faced by many other intellectuals of the 20th Century, like Thomas and Klauss Mann, who in Mephisto gives us a tragic account of men who submit themselves to power. Violent death (Klauss Committed suicide) seems at times to be the only valuable intellectual response; alternatively, we can only make a pact with the Devil. And like the Mann’s, Pasolini also came from the bourgeoisie, then rejected it, looking back at the past for reasons.
Salo’ opens with some tracking shots of the Northern Italian landscape (where we could see a neorealist influence). What caught my attention was that in the selection of the village he wanted to shoot, Paolini must have made sure to select one that would represent the present and the past at the same time. In fact, we see a medieval tower hovering over the village. That tower signifies history. The presence of history, or rather its weight, is strong in all artistic outputs of the last century. History is omnipresent, but at the same time, at least for Pasolini, absent. ‘Who could doubt my sincerity when I say that the message of Salo’ is the denunciation of the anarchy of power and the inexistence of history?’, Pasolini says. The evil in history repeats itself, and men do not seem to realise that. Salo’ is the last attempt of a man to communicate this, to shock us to the truth, to look back. From here the necessity to find new means of expression, that can be neorealism, in the case of post-war Italian cinema.
Something that struck me when watching Salo’ was the incredible expressionism of the bodies, and of naked bodies juxtaposed to clothed bodies. Pasolini recurs ‘to the naked human body as an irreducible medium of communication, to a semiosis of corporeality unobstructed by the civilising veils of clothing and libidinal repression that culture has imposed upon it.’ Angela Dalle Vacche’s The Body in the Mirror offers us some enlightening devices for the analysis of Salo’, of which though she does not talk about. In the film, as we said, bodies are central to the narration, and more than words they narrate themselves, through their sufferings and angst, that relationship between sex, death and power. And the expressions of those bodies are reflected in mirrors, mirrors that in Salo’ are present on nearly every wall, and often the image they reflect catches our attention more than the happening itself. What is Pasolini trying to communicate through these cinematic devices? To me, his seems to be a last cry for humanism, through the extreme disgust of the represented barbarism, for us to look at ourselves in the mirror, and realise what we are, and have become. We have it right there, the mirror, in front of us, yet we do not want to see what the reality is. Because that is reality, no more no less than the one of the bicycle thieves in de Sica’s eponymous neorealist film. Those things happened for real, and still do, whether we want to look in the mirror that reflects them or not. We feel them on our body, and ultimately they will take us to (self)destruction. Pasolini’s is, as I want to call it, realism through bodies, neorealism of bodies. Sadly, society in 1975 was not ready for his realism, and the film was banned. The film has been re-released recently. Are we ready to see now?
With what we have discussed so far, we can already see the major semantic levels in Salo’. First, the representation of the anarchy of absolute power, as performed by the Church and by the State. The four fascists in Salo’ do not have names, but only titles, like Monsignore or Presidente, which recall us of the hierarchy of both the Church and the State. The ‘society’ in the house is structured accordingly, and we have the four fascists, then their servants and the female story-tellers, then the 16 victims, 8 boys and 8 girls. At the beginning they were 9 boys and 9 girls, but 2 are lost towards the beginning already. The ninth boy is shot dead before getting to the house, while trying to escape from the fascist convoys. The scene, I found, is very simple-structured, and nearly clinical, presenting the coldness of the action, with a total absence of emotions or close-ups… probably, really showing us the cruel reality precisely as it must have been for him, as for many at those times.
When the fascists (who always shout – like Hitler!) get together, away from their victims (that they call ‘weak creatures in chains destined to our pleasure), they discuss issues of power. Salo’ is an allegory of Power. Power, they say, is what they have, as fascists, and ‘we, fascists, are the only real anarchic, in that the true anarchy is that of power.’ YET THEY ARE NOT OUTSIDE THE REALM OF POWER, RATHER VERY MUCH EMBEDDED IN IT. Once more, it is the ‘abstract’ reality of power, both sexual and political, that Paolini wants to materialise, make real, to show it as it is… And, following Bazin, ‘realism in art can only be achieved in one way – through artifice.’ Historically, the case of the Republic of Salo’ represented the apotheosis of these ‘anarchic power’ relations that found in the Marquis De Sade an anachronistic teller. ‘Practical reason says that during the Republic of Salò it would have been particularly easy given the atmosphere to organise, as Sade’s protagonists did, a huge orgy in a villa guarded by SS men. Sade says explicitly in a phrase, less famous than so many others, that nothing is more profoundly anarchic than power – any power. To my knowledge there has never been in Europe any power as anarchic as that of the Republic of Salò: it was the most petty excess functioning as government. What applies to all power was especially clear in this one. In addition to being anarchic what best characterises power – any power – is its natural capacity to turn human bodies into objects. Nazi-Fascist repression excelled in this.’
Second semantic level, that of a perverse and violent sexuality, which is again linked to power. One of the rules of the house is that the ‘guests’ will have to copulate like animals. What is this if not the negation of humanity? And Pasolini is expressing it. The victims are not made of the same nature as the fascists, and therefore cannot ‘hold up’ (or rather hold down…) to their ‘standards’, and as a consequence, they are tortured. It is the reality of the concentration camps, the supreme expression of the tragedy of human bestiality. And the tragedy reaches its climax at the end of the movie, where nearly all of the victims are brutally tortured, raped and killed. The way he does so is, I would say, interestingly peculiar. We see the scene not at first hand, but as it is seen by one of the fascists through his binoculars, across a fence (like many stills we have of the concentration camps) which gives it a documentary sense at times, while also emphasising the tragicalness of it. Those reportage conventions (the images even are made to look slightly blurred, like an historical footage) at times distanciates us from the happenings, in a way presenting us facts for what they were, how they were happening.
Third, and a characteristic that he shares with the neaorealists, Pasolini is critical of commercial and consumerist culture, in Salo’ as much as in his other works. He is critical of a cinema that does not make us think, made for ‘mass’ consumption, and does not reflect the ‘real’ condition of contemporary society. The post-war period saw an arguably coerced attempt by the heads of the state (the Christian Democrats) to rebuild a divided country on the weak foundations of propagandistic well being and flourishing of the state. A disillusioned romantic, a Marxist and a Christian, ‘for Pasolini Italy in the seventies, which had revealed the first syndromes of the crisis arising from the excesses of the economic miracle, had entered a deep crisis. He defined the drama of the world in the following terms: “The tragedy is that there are no human beings any longer, only strange machines that crash into one another. And we, the intellectuals, always pick up last year’s railway timetable, or even one from ten years ago, and then we say: how strange, if those trains don’t go through there, how could they have crashed like that?”
In contemporary culture words have lost their meaning. If we cannot say no, fascism as commercial culture (as so harshly criticised by Marxist Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectics of Enlightenment) will make us say things we do not want to say, like in the film, when Maria and Sergio are made to marry, and their ‘yes, I do’, is actually a ‘no, I don’t’. The strong juxtapositions in Salo’ well render this tragicalness, and the content calls for discussions of style that tend to go in their representation beyond style itself. The hopeless acknowledgment of a life that is not a life we have seen it, as I mentioned before, in the works of many before Pasolini; it is Hamlet’s debate of action/inaction, the same that will bring Cesare Pavese, amongst the many, to commit suicide, as one of the four women in Salo’ does. She is a peculiar figure in the film, a woman who does not tell stories like the other three, but plays the piano. She is a virtuoso, and commits suicide when all of a sudden accepting the awareness of the brutalities perpetrated by the fascists. Paradoxically, her death constitutes hope.
This last comment takes me to consider music. In all neorealist films, the soundtrack plays an important role in ‘involving’ us in or detaching us from the subject matter, in helping us ‘to think about reality precisely as it is.’ The musical accompaniment to most of the movie is often made up of cabaret-like music, creating that striding contrast of ‘soft’ music/ brutal actions (to cite another movie made four years before Salo’, the same contrast we see in the rape scene of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange). Towards the end of the movie though the music becomes atonal, very well expressing the sonnies of the contrasted human soul. During the tortures, it is cabaret-like again, then we only hear rainstorm-like sounds, then choir/church music, then the apocalyptic Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, Cantiones Profanae; to then end up, in the final scene, where two boys start dancing together, with jazzy sounds. In a ten-minute frame, we are transported in a journey through painful images matched by at times painful, at times cheerful music.
It is now time to sum up on Pasolini’s relationship with neorealism, in the light of our analysis of Salo’. Pasolini was a ‘filmmaker who believed that the cinema was no more than the written language of reality, set out to explore the boundaries of what could be seen on screen.’ This is why, as Simon Callow suggests in an interview, Pasolini ‘insisted in going straight to the truth, however uncomfortable it is for anyone.’ This he shared with neorealists, even though in the case of Salo’, the subject matter is not the average working class experiences of life (even though it is at the beginning of the film, when working class families are torn apart by the arrest of their young sons), unemployment, poverty, or the ‘underdeveloped’ South, the country/city juxtaposition or housing problems. He is here dealing with all power. Yet, he does include elements that remind us of reportage conventions, as we have seen; he uses real life actors, a lot of them unprofessional, he films on location and all symbols and music, as we have pointed out, are fundamental in terms of meaning and emotion of the narrative. The influence of theatre and melodrama is also strong, in the very theatrical telling of the stories by the Signore, and the visually striking symmetrical positioning of the camera in the indoor scenes, as if the camera (therefore the audience) was a spectator at the theatre. This can be seen as a means of expressing the contrast of a static fascism against the movement of bodies.
As Dalla Vacche suggests, ‘with neorealism, an apparently immobile landscape and body politic begins to move, in contrast to the motionless statues of fascism.’ The subject matter here though is so atrocious that, coupled with those stylistic devices, it seems to surge to some ‘mythical’ state. Following Marcus when he says that ‘in the name of his cinema of poetry, Pasolini constantly disrupts the horizontal narrative flow of images so that the movement along what Jakobson calls the metaphoric axis takes precedence over its metonymic progression’, we see Pasolini’s ‘polemical relationship with neorealist style, which is at once appropriated and subverted in strategic ways. Thus Pasolini invokes the historical and geographical concreteness of neorealism, its pretense to documentary authenticity, only to deny such a materialist reading in an assertion of his story’s supercession of material limits.’
Salo’ is then ‘a stage in a trajectory exploring the instinctual forces regarded by the author as governing human life and variously expressed, perverted and repressed in different historical and social circumstances.’ To what extent does it make sense to ask for a definition of a style when what he was trying to do in Salo’ was already so revolutionary for the times? As Pasolini himself says, ‘in neorealistic film, day-to-day reality is seen from crepuscular, intimistic, credulous, and above all naturalistic point of view… In neorealism, things are described with a certain detachment, with human warmth, mixed with irony – characteristics which I do not have. Compared with neorealism, I think I have introduced a certain realism, but it would be hard to define it exactly.’
Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M. (1944) Dialectics of Enlightenment. London, Verso, 1997;
Bazin, A. (1972) What Is Cinema? University of California Press;
Dalle Vacche, A. (1992) The Body in the Mirror. Princeton University Press;
Forgacs, D. & Lumley, R. (1996) Italian Cultural Studies. Oxford University Press;
Landy (2000) Italian Film. Cambridge University Press;
Lukacs, G. (1964) Essays on Thomas Mann. Merlin Press, London;
Marcus, M. (1986) Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton University Press;
Marcus, M. (1993) Filmmaking by the book. The Johns Hopkins University Press, London;
Thomson, K. & Bordwell, D. Film History: An Introduction.
Williams, R. (1976) Keywords. Fontana Press, London.
Cinefile:Pasolini – Heretic. 1995, Channel 4;
Pasolini, P. (1975) Salo’.