Pasolini's final film, Salo, transposes the Marquis de Sade's notorious eighteenth century novel, '120 Days of Sodom, to Mussolini's short lived fascist republic of Salo at the end of World War Two. In the film a group of young people are rounded up by Italian fascists, taken to a secluded house and subjected to ritualised acts of torture and degradation. Some chose to 'collaborate' and are spared. Others resist and are ultimately executed. The film explores the idea that absolute power corrupts, and is intended as a critique of both fascism and consumerism.
Salo was first screened in Britain at the Old Compton Street cinema club in 1977. It was shown uncut, to members only, without a certificate from the BBFC. After a few days, the cinema was raided by the police, who confiscated the print and threatened action against the cinema owners under the offence of common law indecency. The cinema appealed, explaining that the film was screened uncut only after taking advice from the then Secretary of the BBFC, James Ferman.
The film had originally been submitted to the BBFC by United Artists in January 1976, when it was refused a certificate on the legal grounds of gross indecency. Gross indecency was defined in British law as 'anything which an ordinary decent man or woman would find to be shocking, disgusting and revolting', or, which 'offended against recognised standards of propriety'. Unlike the (OPA) - which at that stage did not apply to films - gross indecency allowed for no defence of artistic or cultural merit to be mounted on the film’s behalf. Furthermore, there was no requirement to consider the film - or the film’s purpose - as a whole. If any part of the film was indecent then the whole film was illegal. The only way in which the BBFC could remedy such a problem was through extensive cutting to remove any possible elements of ‘indecency’. United Artists assumed that cuts would make the film acceptable, but James Ferman had argued that editing would 'destroy the film's purpose by making the horrors less revolting, and therefore more acceptable'. Ferman did not feel that the film should be cut, describing Salo as 'one of the most disturbing films ever to be seen by the Board, yet its purpose is deeply serious... it is quite certainly shocking, disgusting and revolting - even in the legal sense - but it is meant to be. It wants us to be appalled at the atrocities of which human nature is capable when absolute power is wielded corruptly'.
Following this advice, United Artists sold the rights on to Cinecenta, who were advised by Ferman to show the film without a certificate, on a club basis, so it could be seen uncut as Pasolini had intended. The police prosecution was an embarrassment, and Ferman intervened and spoke to the Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions.
By that time the campaign to bring films within the scope of the OPA, which was led by Ferman, had borne fruit in the Criminal Law Act 1977, and the indecency charges were dropped. The film could now be considered as a whole, and its cultural and artistic value could be taken into account. Nonetheless, it was made clear to Ferman that charges might still be brought under the ‘deprave and corrupt’ test of the OPA if the film were to be shown uncut. Ferman therefore agreed to take advice from two distinguished QCs and to assist in the editing of a special version for cinema clubs. In 1979, the DPP agreed that proceedings need not be taken against this reduced version.
The cut version prepared by James Ferman for club screenings lost nearly six minutes of footage, removing - amongst other things - some of the most extreme violence at the end of the film, and certain elements of sexual behaviour that were believed to be vulnerable to prosecution. It also added an on-screen to legally 'explain' the context of Mussolini's regime at Salo and the writings of the Marquis de Sade. This version was shown at club cinemas throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. The club version was, however, never formally submitted to the BBFC for classification, presumably because there was by that stage no commercial benefit in considering a wider theatrical release.
Salo was formally resubmitted to the BBFC by the BFI in October 2000. This submission came shortly after the BBFC had published a new set of classification, in September 2000, themselves the result of a major process of public consultation exercise. The BBFC had stated in its news release when launching the new Guidelines that the BBFC would no longer intervene with material for adult viewing unless the material in question was either illegal or genuinely likely to be harmful.
The BBFC was satisfied that Salo was neither illegal nor harmful within the terms of its new Guidelines and therefore agreed to classify the film 18 uncut for cinema exhibition on 16 November 2000. The film had been viewed by a number of examiners at the BBFC, as well as by Director, Robin Duval, and its President, Andreas Whittam Smith. The film was subsequently submitted for video classification by the BFI and was awarded an 18 uncut certificate for video and DVD release soon after on 19 December 2000.
In reaching the decision to pass Salo 18 uncut, the BBFC considered that although the film was undeniably - and intentionally - shocking, it did not contain anything that would ‘deprave and corrupt’ viewers - the basic test of the OPA. In fact, Salo’s purpose and its likely effect on viewers seemed to be quite the opposite. In the BBFC’s view, the film depicted its events in a cold, detached and ritualised style, deliberately removing any hint of titillation. The film also mirrored de Sade’s verbose literary style, alienating the viewer through its repetitions. Although the film contained many disturbing scenes, the BBFC agreed that its intention was to deliberately shock and appal audiences at the evil of fascism and to vividly illustrate the idea that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Much like James Ferman in the 1970s, the BBFC agreed that any attempt to cut the film would undermine the director’s purpose by making the film less shocking, the events depicted more palatable, and therefore less effective. Although the film was suggestive of many horrors, the BBFC noted that most of its on screen violence was in fact relatively muted and shown in long shot or extreme long shot. There were no lingering close ups and the film’s climactic death scenes could even be said to appear technically unconvincing by modern standards.
The BBFC was conscious that although the film had been considered potentially ‘indecent’ at law in 1976, the protection now granted by the OPA (extended to cover film in 1977) made Salo less problematic in 2000. The OPA requires that any film should be considered as a whole and that its more difficult scenes should not be considered in isolation. Given Salo’s serious purpose, and its avoidance of titilatory or pornographic content, the BBFC concluded that the film could not be considered obscene within the meaning of the Act, nor regarded as harmful to viewers.
The BBFC also considered that, ultimately, Salo, is a film of limited appeal and is unlikely to ever receive widespread distribution. Those people who chose to view the film would, because of its notoriety, be aware of its contents. Nonetheless, the BBFC did recognise the public’s desire for more detailed , also highlighted by the recent public consultation exercise, and the Consumer Advice issued for Salo drew clear attention to the content of the film: 'Contains strong violence, sexual violence and scenes of torture and degradation'.