If I have to pick one film to be the most unforgettable queer film I’ve watched, it would be Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò. Dare I say it’s also one of the most disturbing and beautiful films I’ve seen in my life. An adaptation of Marquis de Sade’s semi-finished epic of sex and torture, The 120 Days of Sodom, Salò is Pasolini’s “modern” update set in the Fascist-occupied area of Italy (named as Republic of Salò) where four fascists captured a group of 18 young boys and girls from the countryside and trapped them in a castle for four months of mental and sexual corruption along with sadism and violence.
The life of filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was as colorful and compelling as his works. Openly gay during his career, Pasolini was outed in 1949 while he was living and teaching as a regional poet in northeast Italy. He was promptly charged with corrupting a minor that took both his job and his membership in the Italian Communist Party. The subsequent scandal forced him to move to Rome where his literary career took off. In 1975, he was murdered by a 17-year-old male prostitute who ran him over several times in his own car. Salò remained Pasolini’s last and queerest feature.
Evidently, Pasolini was controversial and culturally subversive both as a person and an artist. Salò is truly the paramount of his subversive sensibility and ideology. After capturing the youths, the fascists subject them first to “Circle of Mania” where the youths are only allowed to have “unnatural” sex. Any normal heterosexual sex is punishable by death. And then, the youths are forced to consume shit in “Circle of Shit.” A grand gay wedding is held between one of the fascists and a boy where only shit is served. That scene is both grotesque and beautiful. Lastly, in “Circle of Blood,” the youths are tortured and killed.
Some critics said that Pasolini was openly gay but he “rarely dealt with homosexuality in his movies.” How wrong could that statement be? Without Pasolini being gay and prosecuted for his homosexuality, Pasolini would have never made a movie as queer as Salò. Essentially, Salò is a queer adaptation of De Sade’s largely heterosexual ouevre. Very much like The 120 Days of Sodom was Marquis De Sade’s literary protest against his unjust imprisonment, Salò was Pasolini’s ultimate protest against the oppressive and conservative Italian right-wing who could have been responsible for his own murder.
As much as I love David Cronenberg as a filmmaker, he is very much a heterosexual-centric filmmaker who has unqueered two major literary works in cinema—M. Butterfly and Naked Lunch, also his least compelling works. Cronenberg simply could not make homosexuality sensual in his movies.
In M. Butterfly, he made the sex between Rene Gallimard and Song Liling into campy foreplay between an unattractive older white guy and a drag queen with bad makeup, erasing the very central theme of gender passing from David Henry Hwang’s groundbreaking original play.
In Naked Lunch likewise, all the gay sex is monstrous. If you read Naked Lunch, there’s constantly sex with boys and it’s a very sensual and queer book. Because of Cronenberg’s heterosexist lens, he stripped both works of its queerness and replaced it with monstrosity, what Cronenberg knew best.
Comparing a queer filmmaker like Pasolini to a straight filmmaker like Cronenberg, I assert that Pasolini couldn’t have made a queerer film than Salò where beyond the obvious controversial images and ideas he is putting both sexuality and violence on display as a spectacle to question the arbitrariness of the ruling mainstream. Why should homosexuality be wrong? Furthermore, why should we persecute people for their sexuality and intimate relations? In Salò, heterosexuality is arbitrarily outlawed in the world of the fascists to reflect how flawed the righteous mainstream could be. Only fascists would persecute people for their sexuality and intimate relations however “abnormal” they may seem.