Salo: How Twitter Learned about Pasolini

By Edo Muric

What do the Twitter-heavy 2020 primaries of the Democratic party, that are supposed to pick the challenger for Donald Trump, have to do with Pasolini, let alone his most controversial and final film? In a normal world they shouldn't have anything to do with each other, but by some strange cosmic conicidence, we have had Twitter trolls posting pictures from Salo, like some first-class cineasts.

The trolls in question are the notorious Bernie-bros, the online militia of the presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, known for harassment and death threats against the supporters of other candidates. The picture they have been re-tweeting out of context is a still from the film, from the very last scene, where we can see one of the imprisoned young men (played by Pasolini regular, Franco Merli), stripped naked, held down, mutilated and killed, following lenthy sexual and physical abuse. The image was used in order to supposedly illustrate the events taking place at the campaign headquarters of the rival Democratic candidate, Pete Buttigieg. Context was unimportant - the keyword for the bros was the word "Sodom" in the film's title (Salo, or 120 Day of Sodom), which they connected to the fact that Buttigieg is the first gay presidential candidate in US history, who at the moment of writing is leading with the delegates, after winning Iowa and getting a tie in New Hempshire. The other thing that inspired their clever joke is the image itself, which they most probably misidentified as showing a "gay rape", which is not correct. The image is showing execution and, as already mentioned, mutilation - the character's tongue is being severed with a knife.

The graphic nature of the image was a reason enough not to present it in any context outside of the film itself. The image is not funny, ironic or clever in any way. It is just a depiction of human depravity. The homophobic connotation it has been integrated into, however, was too good for some people. Therefore, Dave Weigel, who is a Washington Post journalist (!), retweeted the original Bernie Bro tweet. Soon he received a bit of criticism, which prompted him to delete it and give a cliched non-apology. Basically, he understood why some may see it as homophobic, even though he did not.

Afterwards there have been attempts to justify it as a legitimate attack on a political opponent and that it had nothing to do with Buttigieg's sexuality. Rather, Salo is a film about fascism (wikipedia could have confirmed as much), and the young intellectual progressive former mayor of South Bend (who is politically left to Obama) is in the view of these people the closest to a fascist there can be. Of course, the insistance that homosexuality can be linked to fascism has had a long history in the far-left circles. From the original Soviet Marxists, to Theodor Adorno, Bernardo Bertolucci and Oliver Stone, all of them had developed some sort of a homophobic narrative in order to explain fascism and authoritarianism. Of course, the reason why film illiterate internet trolls chose Salo had nothing to do with any of it. Obviously they just googled "sodom + movie + image", which is what results in the notorious film still.

Which leads us to the ironic lesson of this entire story. The film they tried to appropriate for homophobic purposes was in fact made by a famous gay director. And the film is not at all about sexuality. Instead, it is a film about authoritarianism. It depicts a group of old fascists kidnapping, torturing and raping a group of young men and women. It is a story about the corruption of the mind. The innocent angelic victims in Salo are forced by their morally ugly captors to do the most deprived things, from eating feces, to raping and betraying each other. The spiritual pain of the ugly and impure old, targeting the pure young, doing everything in order to make them as morally dirty as themselves, is an echo of dirty amoral politics. In the world of Sanders everyone is corrupt and dirty. Including the idealistic 38 year old Buttigieg, who is seen as dangerous, being the only one who has decided to totally reject the cynicism of the status quo. Him being gay is an important part of it as well.

The misunderstood genius, Pasolini, who was one of the most idealistic directors in history, made his humanistic point by making one of the darkest and most disturbing films ever. The point of Salo is not that evil wins but that the cynical and the corrupt are in such a state of existential panic, that they don't have any other choice but to be as depraved as they have been - which is the point where authoritarianism enters the scene. Not only are they aware that Salo (the last enclave that refused to surrender after the fall of Musolini) is the last stronghold of fascism, but that in spite of the setbacks, human spirit cannot be undone.