A little over a month ago, a landmark event in Australian censorship history took place, an event that largely went undocumented outside film websites and magazines. This event was the home video release of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film and a picture that has suffered a tumultuous history in Australia since 1976.
A brief synopsis of the film, spoiler-free for the benefit of those who are yet to see it: Salò is a loose adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s 1785 work The 120 Days of Sodom, written when the Marquis was housed in the Bastille. Pasolini transposes the themes in de Sade’s upsetting book to World War II fascist Italy. The film is set in the titular puppet state of Nazi Germany, a fascist stronghold nestled against the mountains of northern Italy, and focuses on four libertines who have kidnapped a group of youths to subject them to four months of torture. It is worth noting from the outset that the sexuality contained in the film is presented clinically and in a deliberately non-erotic and unprovocative manner, and the violence is designed by no means designed to titillate.
On its face, the film is a withering impeachment of Benito Mussolini’s regime, with the four fascist libertines - the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate and the President - representing the corrupt quarters of the Italian status quo. The director has argued that these elements remained corrupt well after fascism was dismantled in Italy, and the film was partially intended to apply to a contemporary context. Pasolini, a left-wing intellectual who was at times a journalist, a philosopher and a poet before and during his highly respected career as a filmmaker, pointed out the allegorical nature of his masterpiece and the unrelenting criticism it bears on consumerism, corruption and the value society places on human life and sexuality.
Salò was released in 1975, shortly after Pasolini’s violent death in circumstances that remain unsettled, and its torrid history with Australian censors commenced a year later. The film was banned. The ban was confirmed in 1992 but overturned in 1993 when Salò was awarded an R18+ classification and released to theatres. After a protracted period during which neither religious groups nor politicians of both creeds could contain their disgust, the film was re-submitted to the (then) Office of Film and Literature Classification in 1998 and was Refused Classification.
Refused Classification is a phrase that should be briefly explained. The Classification Board is governed by the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 (Cth). Pursuant to that Act, the Classification Board is conferred the power to refuse to classify material that comes before it on the basis that the content of the material is of “very high impact” (only “high impact” scenes are permissible in the highest classification for non violent erotica, R18+). Material that has been refused classification is illegal to distribute in Australia - not necessarily because it contains content that is contrary to State or federal Criminal Codes, but because the Board seeks to “strike a balance between permitting adults to make choices [and] respecting that others need not see material they find confronting and protecting children from inappropriate content” (from their website).
Returning to Salò, and as it floundered in Refused Classification hell from 1998 on, the film enjoyed DVD releases throughout much of the Western world: boutique quality film distributors Criterion released the movie in the United States and DVDs hit the shelves in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Switzerland, France and Salò’s native Italy. The Australian ban was confirmed in 2003 and 2008, but on April 14, 2010, the film was passed with an R18+ classification, with the consumer advice warning of “scenes of torture and degradation, sexual violence and nudity”. Although the Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O’Connor sought review of the Board’s decision on public interest grounds, the R18+ classification was confirmed by a majority Review Board one month later. An important proviso was stressed: the film could only be released if supplemented by a significant volume of extra material included on the DVD, providing context and making-of featurettes. This was oddly contrary to the Board’s 1993 decision because it effectively proscribed a theatrical release.
The outcry that ushered in this liberalisation of the Classification Board’s standards was, perhaps, not unprecedented given the vitriol espoused during Salò’s theatrical release in the 90s. Religious lobby groups were predictably the first to voice their concerns, but the unfortunate nadir of the debate took place in the Senate, when Donald McDonald, the Howard-appointed Director of the Board, faced the ire of Liberal Senator Julian McGauran, who held a flame (albeit one attached to a torch and carried with a pitchfork) for Salò throughout his political career.
Mr McDonald’s grilling is worth a read; it is accessible on Hansard and is part of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee Estimates dated May 24, 2010. Mr McDonald defends with aplomb the manner in which the Board handled Salò, despite Senator McGauran’s vociferous allegations of incompetence, his consistent interruptions and escalating personal sleights against Mr McDonald and Trevor Griffin, the Acting Convenor of the Board.
Fast-forward to September 8, and Salò hit the shelves in DVD retailers and rental stores. The same day, The Australian published an article online titled “Christian bid to prevent Salo DVD release”, reporting Christian lobby group FamilyVoice’s Federal Court of Australia challenge to the Classification Board’s decision to permit the film’s release. The Australian Christian Lobby is also involved in the appeal, as is Senator McGauran and his Liberal Party colleague, Tasmanian Senator Guy Barnett. According to FamilyVoice, the directions hearing will recommence on November 4, and the case itself may not be heard until December.
With the Federal Court decision, yet to be handed down, the fate of Salò remains up in the air, and despite The Drum, The Courier-Mail and other media outlets writing opinion pieces in support of Pasolini’s credentials as a filmmaker and Salò’s legitimacy as a work of cinema, the outdated conservative posturing of religious lobbyists and politicians on both the left and the right has sought to dominate the issue and stifle debate.
The cardinal implication by Salò’s opponents is that the film’s defenders are facilitating the distribution of pedophilic material. Although this argument silences an alarming number of less self-assured liberals, it is, of course, utter nonsense: intelligent cinema has been made possessing stark and sometimes graphic (but always simulated) themes of pedophilia: as well as Salò, Gregg Araki’s devastating Mysterious Skin (2004) is a case in point. Films like Salò are made for adult audiences, and adult audiences are well equipped to grasp the message that Pasolini is unfalteringly blatant in portraying: a savage attack on Salò’s antagonists and what they represent (a fascist, capitalist, consumerist society), contextualised by the Marquis de Sade’s 200-year-old work. The suggestion that Pasolini is attempting to convey any other message completely misses the point.
Salò is a film that has been broadly available across the world since its initial release 35 years ago, and it remains a prescient and elegantly shocking snapshot of dangerous politics. One might be forgiven for thinking that Salò is merely exploitative dreck after observing how hot under the collar some are getting, but those who allow themselves to see beyond Salò’s undoubtedly challenging content will be rewarded with an historically and socially rich film that carries a message resoundingly criticising its evil antagonists and their broader attitudes. Salò is a masterfully crafted film made by one of Italy’s premier cultural intellectuals, and it deserves the respectful, comprehensive release that DVD distributors Shock have provided it.
I urge adults with an appreciation of well-made, confronting cinema to seek out a copy of Salò immediately.