Pasolini’s Salò: Torture is Political

Pasolini’s con­tro­ver­sial final film Salò (1975), based on Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom (1785), poses sig­ni­ficant ques­tions re­garding the in­ter­sec­tion between sad­istic tor­ture and sov­er­eignty. The film is di­vided into four seg­ments, heavily in­spired by Dante’s Inferno: Ante-​Inferno, Circle of Manias, Circle of Shit, and Circle of Blood. Salò fo­cuses on four cor­rupt sov­er­eigns after the fall of Italy’s fas­cist ruler Benito Mussolini in 1944. Four fas­cist lib­ertines — the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate, the President — kidnap the most beau­tiful young people in town and take them to a villa, to an en­closed space called ‘The Republic of Salò’, a Nazi puppet state. From now on, the Republic of Salò be­comes a fas­cist en­clave from which there is no es­cape. Thus starts ex­treme abuse, tor­ture, and the murders of young men and women for the sake of per­verted lust and ex­treme pleasure. The fas­cist captors wel­come the beau­tiful young Italians to hell with the fol­lowing words:

You herded, feeble creatures, destined for our pleasure. Don’t ex­pect to find here the freedom granted in the out­side world. You are beyond reach of any ‘leg­ality’. No one knows you are here. As far as the world goes, you are already dead. (Pasolini, 1975)

The young vic­tims’ bodies be­come sites of re­pressive pain and sexual pleasure, bearing the scars of sov­er­eign ven­geance. The greatest strength of the movie lies in showing us that the ap­peal of pleasure is in­sep­ar­able from the ap­peal of sov­er­eign vi­ol­ence. Reminiscent of the rituals of prim­itive sys­tems of cruelty, Pasolini al­most suc­ceeds in making the sad­istic tor­ture part of an en­ter­taining spec­tacle. This fest­ivity is, how­ever, un­lim­ited and pro­tected by an un­res­tricted law of sov­er­eign power. Thus, what we en­counter in Salò is what I call the lim­it­less ‘en­joy­ment of cruelty’, which makes tor­ture the ven­geance of four cor­rupt des­pots. Sovereign cruelty pun­ishes the vic­tims’ bodies without any guilt, while sexual pleasure be­comes a weapon of total dom­in­a­tion. Whereas phys­ical beauty be­comes a symptom of vul­ner­ab­ility, sov­er­eign polit­ical power be­comes a de­structive power, a total form of fascism.

Torture is widely con­sidered as a form of mad­ness, as an ‘ir­ra­tional’ act, as an un­eth­ical prac­tice that is con­fined to cor­rupt ad­min­is­tra­tions or to­tal­it­arian sys­tems. It is also viewed as a jur­idical problem, as one of the basic prin­ciples of human rights. I sug­gest that both ap­proaches mis­un­der­stand and sim­plify the role of tor­ture; they fail to grasp the true pur­pose of tor­ture within sov­er­eign polit­ical power. Torture, I as­sert, is one among many mani­fest­a­tions of sov­er­eignty as dom­in­a­tion. Torture, there­fore, needs to be con­sidered in re­la­tion to other cruel mani­fest­a­tions of state sov­er­eignty: for ex­ample, the de­struc­tion of eco­lo­gical sys­tems, the risk-​security com­plex, the state of ex­cep­tion, and the com­plete an­im­al­isa­tion of human be­ings car­ried out by neo­lib­eral bi­opol­itics. And yet tor­ture is not one among these various forms of sov­er­eign power. Torture is the most priv­ileged ac­tu­al­isa­tion of state terror, for it re­veals the nature of sov­er­eignty (and its ra­tional consciousness).

Torture is the ex­treme sys­temic ex­pres­sion of the logos of sov­er­eign dom­in­a­tion. Torture is a tech­nique of sov­er­eign dom­in­a­tion; it is not an ex­treme ex­pres­sion of law­less ven­geance, for sov­er­eign ven­geance is polit­ical. It is for this reason that it is widely prac­ticed in secret. Torture is a smaller system which is rep­res­ent­ative of a ra­tional sov­er­eign law; it is a tool of gov­ernance, with the aim of eli­citing in­form­a­tion from and hu­mi­li­ating the ‘enemy’. As a tool of war and sov­er­eign dom­in­a­tion, tor­ture is, there­fore, in­tim­ately bound to a ‘lib­eral way of war’ (Dillon and Reid, 2009).

Liberalism con­sists of various in­ter­re­lated so­cial re­gimes, which, al­though said to be com­mitted to ‘peace-​making’, is nev­er­the­less also com­mitted to vi­ol­ence, per­manent state of emer­gency, and con­stant pre­pared­ness for per­petual war (Ibid. 7). Seen in this light, war, vi­ol­ence and so­ciety are mu­tu­ally con­stitutive and the lib­eral way of war is ‘a war-​making ma­chine whose con­tinuous pro­cesses of war pre­par­a­tion prior to the con­duct of any hos­til­ities pro­foundly, and per­vas­ively, shape the lib­eral way of life’ (Ibid. 9). The main ob­ject of the lib­eral way of war is life it­self be­cause it is what threatens life it­self. Thus ‘everything is per­mitted’ to the lib­eral way of war.

How then are we to un­der­stand the re­la­tion­ship between tor­ture and the de­ten­tion of ‘enemy com­batants’ in light of con­tem­porary sov­er­eign power? Torture has its own set of theo­lo­gical, philo­soph­ical, and polit­ical values. The phys­ical de­struc­tion of the ‘enemy’ — from cru­ci­fixion em­ployed by the Scythians in Antiquity, to the sleep depriva­tion and mu­til­ated arms of the ac­cused with a blunt knife put into prac­tice during the time of the English Civil War, from public ex­e­cu­tions during the Middle Ages, to pro­longed use of stress po­s­i­tions, star­va­tion, beat­ings, elec­trical charges and ex­treme cold throughout the Cold War, and squeezing the testicles, hanging by the arms or legs, blind­folding, strip­ping the sus­pect naked, spraying with high-​pressure water prac­tised by spe­cial­ized teams in Turkish prisons — in short, what we see be­fore us today, is not the ex­pres­sion of in­com­pre­hens­ible horror. It is the exact op­posite: the cal­cu­lated ex­pres­sion and a ra­tional ne­ces­sity that define sov­er­eign power. It is the same ex­pres­sion that led Pasolini to ex­plore the nexus between tor­ture, the state of ex­cep­tion and the bi­opol­itics of late-​capitalist he­ge­mony. Today’s most likely suc­cessors of Pasolini’s fas­cist sov­er­eigns are to be found in the tor­ture cham­bers of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

In the Republic of Salò, young captors are given the taste of sov­er­eign ven­geance in its most rad­ical shape: that of the lim­it­less en­joy­ment of sov­er­eign cruelty and tor­ture. Beyond reach of any ‘leg­ality’, ‘herded creatures’ are re­duced to bare life, life devoid of any value. In Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, sim­il­arly, ‘enemy com­batants’ are being given the taste of sov­er­eign cruelty and the ‘lib­eral way of life’ at its most ef­fective: that of the lim­it­less en­joy­ment of sov­er­eign ven­geance, vi­ol­ence and sys­temic tor­ture. Reduced to bare life, they are ef­fect­ively stripped of all rights. Systemic tor­ture starts at the top and trickles all the way down. Behind water-​boarding is the com­mander. Behind the com­mander are the poli­cy­makers such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush and Barack Obama.

Torture cre­ates vic­tims who are not able to act. In tor­ture, the subject’s im­me­diate re­sponses (anger, spite, re­venge) against the op­pressor are muted and thus take a de­tour through sub­lim­a­tion, in­ward suf­fering. Hence the fa­vourite des­tin­a­tion is not the courtroom but the camp where tor­ture is prac­tised secretly. ‘Creative’ forms of tor­ture find ex­pres­sion in water boarding, sodomy and fucking. This is the paradigm of sov­er­eign polit­ical power, of reign, that makes the lib­eral way of war op­er­ative. That is to say, tor­ture and the state of ex­cep­tion are fun­da­mental to the op­er­a­tion of neo­lib­eral order as a whole. They are fun­da­mental en­gage­ments of the war against everything. The bare life of vic­tims has come to define con­tem­porary so­ciety in the war against terror.

Sovereignty con­sti­tutes the polit­ical body by de­ciding who are re­duced to bare and value­less life and who are re­cog­nised as valu­able and ‘good’ life. The young vic­tims in the Nazi-​backed Republic of Salò, like the in­mates at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, are ex­amples of people who have the first kind of life but not the second. They are re­duced to bare and value­less life, but they are not re­cog­nised as having a valu­able and good life. And be­cause they are re­duced to homo sacer (Agamben, 1998) under the rule of the sov­er­eign power and vi­ol­ence on which sov­er­eign polit­ical order rests, they can be tor­tured and killed.

Bare life sig­ni­fies the an­im­ality of hu­mans, blur­ring the de­marc­a­tion between human and an­imal. Reducing them to homo sacer and de­claring the ex­cep­tion, Salò’s fas­cist, cor­rupt lib­ertines are suc­cessors who have acted out of the same fear their an­cestors have acted at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo: the fear of re­volu­tion. It was the same fear that ex­ecuted Robespierre; it was the same fear that turned the re­volu­tion of 1848 into a re­gime of ban­ditry; it is the same fear, in sum, that es­tab­lishes a neo­lib­eral and mil­it­ar­ised post-​politics in modern times.

This fear, and sad­istic vi­ol­ence that fol­lows, re­con­fig­ures neo­lib­eral cap­it­alism in the same sense that Hobbes and Schmitt treated a state of ex­cep­tion as a polit­ical kernel of the law, as a con­di­tion for the es­tab­lish­ment of a to­tal­it­arian state power. And it is in this sense also that today we pay wit­ness to a ‘cruel and vengeful sov­er­eign power’ that has cul­min­ated in the public tor­ture at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and the secret tor­ture at CIA prisons, the ex­term­in­a­tion of pre­carious in­di­viduals with remote-​controlled drone mis­siles, and ex­traju­di­cial killing, con­tracting out the secret trans­port­a­tion of ‘enemy com­batants’ to third parties and states.

It is worth noting that Pasolini suc­ceeds in presenting tor­ture as a con­stitutive act of polit­ical and mil­itary or­gan­isa­tion of the state. Torturers are normal (not mad and bad) sov­er­eigns be­cause the bodies of the vic­tims are in­scribed by signs and re­gimes of sov­er­eign vi­ol­ence that is seen as ‘leg­ally le­git­imate’. In this way the sad­istic pleasure of the tor­turer meets the total passivity of the tor­tured body. In other words, the sad­istic tor­ture co­in­cides with re­active sub­jects who are rendered obed­ient and sub­or­dinate their de­sires to sov­er­eign polit­ical power.

Victorious only in per­ver­sion, the tor­turers de­rive pleasure from in­scribing signs and re­gimes of sov­er­eign vi­ol­ence on the bodies. In ef­fect, signs and traces of sov­er­eign ven­geance be­come an in­tegral part of op­pressive norms that give rise to the cre­ation of a legal sov­er­eign state. Pasolini thus shows how tor­ture is the in­terior di­men­sion of state sov­er­eignty that is ‘le­git­im­ized by fear’ (Badiou, 2008: 13), ac­cording to which polit­ical philo­sophy, from Hobbes to Schmitt, has defined the ab­so­lutist idea of state sovereignty.

Nevertheless, Salò does not only de­nounce tor­ture, it also an­ti­cip­ates the crimes of state sov­er­eignty. Torture as polit­ical: this is one of the con­tem­porary di­men­sions of tor­ture as an in­stru­ment of sov­er­eign dom­in­a­tion and re­pres­sion. As men­tioned be­fore, Pasolini presents polit­ical di­men­sions of tor­ture by means of four seg­ments: Ante-​Inferno, Circle of Manias, Circle of Shit, and Circle of Blood. Circle of Blood is par­tic­u­larly il­lu­min­ating in this re­gard. At issue here is a kind of tor­ture that is polit­ical, which is re­plete with sad­istic vi­ol­ence, gore, blood, and death: pre­cisely the sort of tor­ture that the fas­cist re­gimes in Latin America and Turkey put into prac­tice and is being prac­tised in the tor­ture cham­bers of the ‘lib­eral way of war’. The Circle of Blood sym­bol­ises tor­ture as a paradigm for the in­tended de­struc­tion of the in­teg­rity of the humanness.

In the final se­quence of scenes, an orgy of polit­ical tor­ture is prac­tised in a court­yard. While the young vic­tims are sub­jected to the most brutal and al­most un­en­dur­able tor­ture and even­tual ex­e­cu­tion, the fas­cist sov­er­eigns de­rive greater sexual pleasure and en­joy­ment, from watching them suffer. Aroused by the dis­play of suf­fering, the lib­ertines begin to suffer with the vic­tims they’ve once de­graded, tor­tured and ex­term­in­ated. Who’s tor­turing whom? What goes there? What does it all mean? The fas­cist sov­er­eigns and the vic­tims enter into a zone of in­dis­tinc­tion, making it im­possible to dis­tin­guish between obed­i­ence to the law and its transgression.

Thus the en­tire system would start to break down. But one of the lib­ertines and a fully aroused sol­dier watch this deadly and in­verted scene from an en­closed bal­cony, through a set of bin­ocu­lars. The screams, the cries, the pains, and the suf­fering of the vic­tims cannot be heard. Orff’s Carmina Burana is played in the back­ground. We begin to wit­ness erot­i­cism, beauty and the suf­fering in si­lence. The camera then shifts from the suf­fering bodies to the fas­cist lib­ertine, who is being mas­turb­ated by the sol­dier. The scene fo­cuses on the voyeur­istic and mas­turb­atory vic­tim­iser, who sits with his back to the camera.

All of a sudden, the vic­tim­iser turns out to be an anonymous viewer. He be­comes us, the audi­ence. Voyeurs of the voyeurism of others, we are — by this con­clu­sion — both dis­tanced from and part of the film’s politi­cisa­tion of sad­istic vi­ol­ence. The sad­istic pleasure of Salò is pro­jected onto the audi­ence: we are shocked and dis­gusted at sad­istic tor­ture, and are shocked and dis­gusted all the more when we realize that we ourselves have be­come si­lent ac­com­plices to vi­ol­ence com­mitted by the global sov­er­eign order in our everyday lives.

Ali Riza Taşkale is a doc­toral can­did­ate in Human Geo­graphy at the Uni­ver­sity of Shef­field. Email: a.​taskale@​sheffield.​ac.​uk


—Agamben G, 1998 Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, Stanford University Press).
—Badiou A, 2008 The Meaning of Sarkozy (London, Verso).
—Dillon M & J Reid, 2009 The Liberal Way of War: Killing to Make Life Live (London and New York, Routledge).
—Pasolini PP, 1975 Salò (United Artists Corporation and Water Beaver Films).

  8 comments for “Pasolini’s Salò: Torture is Political

  1. 29 November 2012 at 8:34 am

    An ex­cel­lent ana­lysis of an ex­tremely dis­turbing film.

  2. Elena Loizidou
    29 November 2012 at 9:15 am

    I really like your ana­lysis, as William Wall says it is ex­cel­lent, I would want to hear though a more com­plex ana­lysis of cruelty and pleasure. The most mundane acts of hu­mi­li­ation — comedians are bril­liant in either en­acting them or talking about them– provide pleasure to its audi­ence, a re­lease. How do we ac­count the non– ex­cep­tional with the ex­cep­tional con­nec­tion between cruelty and pleasure?

  3. Alessandra
    29 November 2012 at 7:02 pm

    Happy to see my be­loved Pasolini get­ting some at­ten­tion, his ‘post-​genocide’ writ­ings are im­mensely useful. Just be­fore dying, upon being asked about his often con­tro­ver­sial polit­ical po­s­i­tions, he said ‘Giving scandal is a right, being scan­dal­ised a pleasure, and to re­ject this pleasure is the mark of the true moralist’

  4. 29 November 2012 at 10:49 pm

    Two quick points. As in con­tem­porary cul­ture Sade is men­tioned in a pos­itive light most of the times, it is re­freshing to see a crit­ical gaze at his ideas.
    And second, this text is par­tic­u­larly powerful be­cause of the way it en­gages tor­ture. However, in the con­text of the ana­lysis of ‘Salo’ as a meta­phor of fas­cism, the cri­tique of lib­er­alism re­hearsed in this art­icle does not sit very well. Is the au­thor pointing to the wrong target? Liberalism cannot be iden­ti­fied with fas­cism. The text lacks a pre­vious ex­plor­a­tion of the dif­fer­ences and com­mon­al­ities that can be found between lib­er­alism and fas­cism. And some con­fu­sion ap­pears to exist when the au­thor takes side with Robespierre while at the same time cri­ti­cizes vi­ol­ence and ‘state terror’.
    A number of ques­tions are rel­evant in this con­ver­sa­tion: What does the au­thor mean with the phrase ‘tor­ture… is also viewed as a jur­idical problem, as one of the basic prin­ciples of human rights’? What is lib­er­alism, ‘neo­lib­eral cap­it­alism’, ‘lib­eral way of life’, ‘lib­eral way of war’ for the au­thor? Are all of these con­cepts the same? Is lib­er­alism by defin­i­tion de­prived of any eman­cip­ator power? And do lib­er­alism and human rights un­der­stood as re­strains to vi­ol­ence and power have nothing to offer to struggles against fas­cism, dic­tat­or­ship, im­per­i­alism, ab­usive armies and para­mil­it­aries in today Turkey, Latin America or Iraq?

    • Alessandra Asteriti
      30 November 2012 at 10:58 am

      Valid points, but, if I might add, Pasolini took a very strong po­s­i­tion both against lib­er­alism and against cap­it­alism; Salo is a meta­phor of the new fas­cism, not the old. Capitalism is the new fas­cism for Pasolini, and it is worse in the sense that, while fas­cism was ‘to­tal­it­arian, it was not to­tal­ising’. He also wrote pas­sion­ately against the human rights dis­course, re­jecting this in­ca­pa­city of the lib­eral in­tel­lec­tual to see the other as dif­ferent from him/​herself. As he elo­quently put it:
      ’The most de­test­able and in­tol­er­able thing, even in the most in­no­cent of bour­geois, is the in­ab­ility to ac­know­ledge ex­per­i­ences of life that are dif­ferent from their own, which means con­ceiving all other ex­per­i­ences as sub­stan­tially ana­logous to their own. […] These bour­geois writers, no matter how vir­tuous and dig­ni­fied, who cannot re­cog­nize the ex­treme psy­cho­lo­gical dif­fer­ence of an­other human being from their own, take the first step to­wards forms of dis­crim­in­a­tion that are es­sen­tially ra­cist; in this sense they are not free, but they be­long de­term­in­ist­ic­ally to their own class: fun­da­ment­ally, there is no dif­fer­ence between them and a head of the po­lice or an ex­e­cu­tioner in a con­cen­tra­tion camp.’

      • 30 November 2012 at 1:35 pm

        The ques­tions I asked to the au­thor of the art­icle were aimed at high­lighting the need for a more com­plex and nu­anced ar­gu­ment­a­tion. The same ap­plies to this com­ment. I cannot see how the text quoted backs the phrase ac­cording to which Pasolini ‘wrote pas­sion­ately against the human rights dis­course’. Rather, he is at­tacking ‘the most in­no­cent of bour­geois’ and ‘these bour­geois writers’ on the basis of a class ar­gu­ment. Another pos­sible in­ter­pret­a­tion is that Alessandra iden­ti­fies human rights with bour­geois con­cepts. But, there have not been so­cialist, anti-​colonial, demo­cratic or lib­eral human con­cep­tions of rights along­side the modern his­tory of human rights? Political or legal lib­er­alism are not the same as cap­it­alism, a ba­sic­ally eco­nomic concept. And cap­it­alism cannot be iden­ti­fied with lib­er­alism, as in the case of con­tem­porary China. Finally, I do not agree with the idea that ‘Salo’ only cri­ti­cised the ‘new fas­cism, and not the old’. This is a far fetched in­ter­pret­a­tion of Salo.

  5. Nicoletta
    17 October 2013 at 4:20 am

    I’m a teacher and just found this film as part of my studies into Italian and French cine­ma­to­graphy… and I’m al­most afraid to watch it. If what is de­scribed in the movie is un­real­istic, can someone ex­plain the co­in­cid­ence between this horror theme and the un­apo­lo­getic “nazi” par­ables de­scribed in Ann Rice (Radcliffe)‘s “beauty” series; and also the sim­il­ar­ities found in the now-​classic French “Story of O”? De Sade seems to have had some well-​organised followers?

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