Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Italy/France, 1971)
Sade's book situated in the German puppet state, the Republic of Salo. I rewatched this one recently and found it to be a great movie about power relations and evil. Since, however, most online reviews (whether favourable or condemning) understand it as a movie about sexual fantasies, I will spend some time explaining why I disagree before becoming more specific about Salo's messages.
So why is this not a movie about sex? An argument can at least be made that this was Pasolini's intention. Pasolini was gay and his early career was marked by a political scandal. This is one of the very few movies where he touches on homosexuality (although it is worth mentioning he was a vocal gay activist in his texts) and it is certainly the only one where he does it at such length. Moreover, the movie has several scenes with a strong element of shock value, which some would argue border on ****ography. This led to bans in a great number of countries, but also caused an uproar among critics. The most famous example here might be Roger Ebert, who despite owning a video copy of the movie since its release never "found the courage" to actually watch it.
To my mind, both arguments can be easily dismissed. Regarding the first one, Salo is not about gayness (and is most certainly not a hidden way for Pasolini to express his secret desires - unlikely as it sounds some reviewers did go this far). The sexuality depicted here is perverse and one would think Pasolini would know better than advocating gay rights by showing old men defecating on young women. Besides, the only movie where he openly advocates the gay cause (Love Meetings, 1965) is a documentary: one suspects that Pasolini did not think art films are a proper medium for this cause or at least for it to be made directly.
The second claim can be dismissed with similar ease. Pasolini simply did not believe that a realistic depiction of sex has to be ****ographic. Among the great directors he is the one with the most realistic sex scenes (there is erect penises galore both in Salo and in Arabian Nights). If the shock value is present in his films it is to serve a larger message: in the case of Arabian Nights, for instance, to hint that the premodern world has a magic element which might have been lost for good in our era. What about the violence then? Didn't Pasolini know his movie will cause an uproar and if so what did he do it? Couldn't he make a movie with a similar but toned down content? People who think this way misunderstand what role the visual extremism is playing in Salo: it is not there to raise the adrenaline of the viewer (like say in gore films) or to serve as a sexual stimulus but to reveal what Pasolini considered to be some deep realities about power and its corrosive effects on humans. A less "shocking" movie would be a disservice to his message - it would make power look less hideous, it would have humanized something that Pasolini wanted to depict as inherently demonic. That Pasolini was not interested in shock per se is also demonstrated by how he dealt with the age of victims: in Sade's book they are in their early teens (12-4 yo), Pasolini instead depicted the victims as being in their early youth. This is not something you change if your main goal is to shock.
I now pass to what I think the movie is really about that is a critic of politics through a moral and psychological lense. As a sidenote, Pasolini was among those who combined Marx with Freud - in case you want a better look at how he understood the relation between these two thinkers, it might be worthwhile to watch Pigsty, which deals precisely with the psychological aspects of power.
Back to the point: what is Salo about? Pasolini himself was aware of the misunderstandings to which his movie could be submitted (esp. in countries like the US which had not experienced a German occupation in WWII) and for this he offered a short bibliography at the very start of the movie. Among them, Roland Barthes Sade, Fourier, Loyola. I quote from there:
Sadian adventures are not fabulous: they take place in a real world contemporary with the time of Sade's youth, i.e., the society of Louis XV. Sade strongly emphasizes the social armature of that world; the libertines belong to the aristocracy, or more exactly ( and more frequently) to the class of financiers, professionals, and prevaricators, in short : exploiters, the majority made wealthy in Louis XV's wars and by the corrupt practices of despotism; unless their noble origin is a voluptuary factor ( the rape of fashionable young
ladies ), the subjects belong to the industrial and urban subproletariat ( the urchins of Marseilles, for example, children "who work in factories and provide the aged roues of that
city with the prettiest objects one could hope to find") or serfs on feudal lands, where they subsist (in Sicily, for example, where Jerome, the future monk in Justine, goes to live, according
to an arcadian plan which will, he says, enable him to have dominion over both his lands and his vassals).
Sade uses them differently, not as an image to be portrayed, but as a model to be reproduced. Where? In the libertine's small society; this society is constructed like a model, a miniature; Sade transports class division into it; on one side, the exploiters, the possessors, governors, tyrants; on the other, the ordinary people. The stimulus for the division ( as in the
larger society) is (sadistic) profitability: "One established . . . over the ordinary people every vexation, every injustice imaginable, certain that the greater the tyranny one exercised,
the greater the sum of pleasures to be withdrawn." Between the social novel (Balzac read by Marx ) and the Sadian novel, a kind of general to and fro maneuver then occurs: the
social novel maintains social relationships in their original place (society as a whole ) but anecdotizes them for the sake of individual biographies (Cesar Birotteau, tradesman; Coupeau,
zinc worker) ; the Sadian novel takes the formula of these relationships, but transports them elsewhere, into an artificial society (as did Brecht in The Threepenny Opera).
However, there is a paradox: class relationships in Sade are both brutal and indirect; uttered in line with the radical contrast between exploiters and exploited, these relationships
do not come into the novel as though for referential description (as is the case with a great "social" novelist like Balzac ); Sade uses them differently, not as an image to be portrayed,
but as a model to be reproduced. Where? In the libertine's small society; this society is constructed like a model, a miniature Sade transports class division into it; on one side, the exploiters, the possessors, governors, tyrants; on the other, the ordinary people. The stimulus for the division ( as in the larger society) is (sadistic) profitability: "One established . . over the ordinary people every vexation, every injustice imaginable, certain that the greater the tyranny one exercised, the greater the sum of pleasures to be withdrawn." Between the social novel (Balzac read by Marx ) and the Sadian novel, a kind of general to and fro maneuver then occurs: the social novel maintains social relationships in their original place (society as a whole ) but anecdotizes them for the sake of individual biographies (Cesar Birotteau, tradesman; Coupeau, zinc worker) ; the Sadian novel takes the formula of these relationships, but transports them elsewhere, into an artificial society (as did Brecht in The Threepenny Opera).
In the first instance, we have reproduction, in the meaning that word has in painting, in photography; in the second instance, there is, one might say, re-production, repeated production of a practice ( and not of an historical "picture" ). The consequence is that the Sadian novel is more "real" than the social novel (which is realistic ); the Sadian practices appear
to us today to be totally improbable; however, we need only travel in any underdeveloped country ( analogous, all in all, to eighteenth-century France) to understand that they are still
operable there : the same social division, the same opportunities for recruitment, the same availability of subjects, the same conditions for seclusion, and the same impunity, so to
(Barthes, pp. 130-1)
Pasolini had chosen in Barthes an unmistakably political reading of Sade.
Understanding the movie as a political one is also favoured by the following: setting the movie in the "Nazi-Fascist" Republic of Salo had obvious political connotations for Italians in the 70s - many ppl who had experienced the occupation of Italy by Germany after the Italian surrender in Sept. 1943 were still alive when the film was made. Pasolini carefully reconstructed late Fascist Italy both its in bourgeois tastes (see for instance the careful choice of paintings decorating the walls of the castle) and in its outward manifestations: see the uniforms of the German soldiers as well as the titles the four figures of power use to address each other. The conversations among these four ressemble the gatherings of high society in their careful rituals - I particularly liked the character who chose to be "the entertainer" by telling banal jokes - a type you typically meet in upper class dinners. Finally, in an environment where everyone seems inescepably doomed there is only one character who manages to elevate himself above the despair- the fascist (who as is later revealed is a communist) who has a sexual relation with the black servant and willingly accepts death when he gets caught.
(for a review
that moves in the right direction, at least the only one I found online, see this one from El Pais [in Spanish]
tl;dr: it is completely beyond how anyone could deny the political character of this movie.