Born on July 29, 1883, Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, referred to affectionately by his supporters as Il Duce (“The Leader”), was the first of a series of modern dictators to rise in Europe, serving as the Prime Minister of Italy from 1922-1943. Under Mussolini, Italy became part of the Axis, fronted by Nazi Germany and Japan. After a series of humiliating military defeats, Mussolini was ousted from office in 1943, and, until his death, he served as the head of the rump Italian Social Republic in Northern Italy. Known as the Republic of Salò, the Italian Social Republic was a puppet state under the control and protection of Nazi Germany. Il Duce met his end on April 28, 1945 he was spotted by partisans and was shot, along with his mistress, while attempting to blend to pass as a German soldier retreating from Italy.
Mussolini’s birthday seems as good of a time as any to revisit one of the most controversial films of the 20th century, Salò or Pasolini’s 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Directed by Italian poet, intellectual and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, Salò swaps the location of the Marquis de Sade’s 1785 story The 120 Days of Sodom, originally set in a castle in Germany’s Black Forest, to the final days of the Mussolini’s Republic of Salò in Northern Italy in 1945. The film is both revered and reviled by film buffs as perhaps “the most disturbing film in history,” in league with such controversial films as The Man Behind The Sun (1988) , Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and A Serbian Film (2010) .
In Passolini’s version of the story, four Italian libertines of status within the Republic of Salò, marry each other’s daughters and shut themselves in a mansion, together with their news wives and an ensemble cast consisting of boy soldiers selected for the size of their cocks, nubile young boy and girls, and a few old prostitutes to assist them in their dastardly deeds. As one can imagine, this is a set up for a whole lot of depravity inflicted by the fascists on their victims, including but not limited to: torture, rape, murder, violence, forced fecal consumption, shooting, forced nudity, human branding, hanging, scalping, tongue ripping, and eye gouging.
More of statement on fascism than a representation of the actual events in Mussolini’s Republic of Salò, Salò’s detractors argue that the film is simply an exploitative exercise in brutality, and that its beautiful cinematography and lush score are methods to deceive its audience into thinking it contains depth, while its proponents argue that within the on-screen violence and depravity are statements on humanity and politics.
Critical views aside, Pasolini’s Salò is arguably one of the most celebrated of a string of Nazi and Axis exploitation films produced in Italy in the mid-70s and, along with Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974), The Night Porter (1974), and Salon Kitty (1976), helped to spark a briefly popular subgenre of “Nazi exploitation” films . Notable imitators include The Gestapo’s Last Orgy (1977), SS Hell Camp (1977), SS Girls (1977), SS Experiment Love Camp (1976), Deported Women of the SS Special Section (1976), and (my personal favorite) Bruno Mattei’s Women’s Camp 119 (1976).
Director Pier Paolo Pasolini met a premature death when he was brutally murdered several weeks before the release of Salò by being beaten and run over with his own car. Like Mussolini who had provided inspiration for his Salò, Pasolini, too, would not live to see how he would be remembered in history. However, unlike Mussolini, Pasolini and Salò are celebrated by filmmakers and critics.
Salò has a 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has been praised by filmmakers Catherine Breillat, Michael Haneke, David Cross, Gaspar Noe, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder – to name only a few. It was was named the 89th greatest film of the 20th century by a poll of critics conducted by the Village Voice, and the Pope of Trash, director John Waters has said, “Salo is a beautiful film…it uses obscenity in an intelligent way…and it’s about the pornography of power.”
This year on Mussolini’s birthday, Juy 29, there will no doubt be a celebration at his birthplace at Predappio, Italy, where fascist apologists will limply trumpet his minor accomplishments such as paid maternity leave and the introduction of the 10-hour work day. Do us all a favor; give Il Duce the tribute he deserves and watch the late Pasolini’s tribute to the world Mussolini created… Even if the film involves a scene where Italian fascists force their victims to eat shit by the plateful, Pasolini’s contributions to Italy are far more enduring.