The state of sodomy

Film - Joan Bakewell slopes off to view Pasolini's most controversial film

A figure in a shapeless mac sneaks into an obscure cinema to join other loners in watching scenes of sustained depravity. It could be the regular pornography routine of sad men seeking pleasure from the sexual antics of others. Except the cinema, in this case, is at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the powerhouse of the avant-garde situated just down the Mall from Buckingham Palace. The film is released by the British Film Institute, another pillar of the nation's cultural campus, and I, its chair, am the person in the mac.

The film is Salo, Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 version of the Marquis de Sade's novel The 120 Days of Sodom. The audience is, indeed, mostly men on their own, but they are clearly not the dirty mac brigade, for this is art-house porn, the sort that can summon, as did Lady Chatterley's Lover in its day, legions of cultural pundits to verify its high purpose and justify its availability.

But this is more than so-called "art-house" porn. This is intended by its maker as a meditation on pornography itself. "An immense sadistic metaphor", Pasolini claimed of what was the Nazi-fascist "dissociation" from its "crimes against humanity". Unhappily, watching a metaphor involves being exposed to actual activities played out by actors in front of the camera. One's first reaction, before getting round to the ideas, the thesis, the thinking, is a gut sense of horror and repulsion. Feelings register first and overridingly as the film proceeds. Only later could I salvage, from my visceral response, the energy to address the film's deep seriousness and substantial achievement. Easy porn it is not. As Quentin Falk remarked when rushes of the film were stolen by presumably over-excited thieves, what they got was 120 days of sod all!

So what do we get? Pasolini set his film not in the 18th- century France of the novel, but in Salo, a beautiful resort on Lake Garda, in 1944. Here, as support for fascism crumbled, Mussolini, together with his most fanatical followers, set up the headquarters of his puppet republic. In Salo, a group of men - referred to as President, Excellency, Bishop and so on - come together to enjoy sexual orgies orchestrated for them by four elegant and ageing procuresses. The film opens with the rounding up, one by one, of young people by fascist soldiers - rather as though they were capturing partisans. But this is worse than warfare - where, after a fashion, certain rules apply. Instead, they are taken to an ancient Italian palace where rules of any kind are abandoned, and they are progressively abused and tortured for the remaining 90 minutes of the film.

The agony is unrelieved. An appeal to God or religion by the young victims is punished by instant death. And when two of them enjoy some warm and natural sex, they are immediately shot. How much of this did I need, I wondered, before getting the point that power is dangerous and knows no limits. Certainly, the repetitive monotony of it all reinforces Hannah Arendt's point about the banality of evil. The guards in the concentration camps must have had a similar response. And that is Pasolini's point.

We live in times when the climate of censorship is changing fast. Pasolini's film, much reviled when it was first made, is now on the film club and national film theatre circuit, and is being paid respectful attention by the critics. But it is not alone. Film-makers are exploring the darker sides of sexuality with ever greater freedom. Two films about de Sade himself were included in the British Film Institute's London Film Festival. Neither is likely to raise eyebrows, but the fascination persists with what de Sade was saying about the range of human impulses. Others are also exploring that territory. Lars von Trier's film The Idiots and Catherine Breillat's Romance both deal with the ugly side of sex. Even "Apocalypse", the current exhibition at the Royal Academy, includes a 15-minute film by Chris Cunningham that fuses sex and violence.

Official attitudes are shifting. The position of the British Board of Film Classification can be crudely summarised as more sex, less violence. The erect penis, once taboo in films and on television, may soon be shown without even a second thought. The emphasis must now be on curbing sequences that incite people to copy violence for its own sake. That may be hard to verify, with libertarians calling for absolute proof of cause and effect, while the rest of us, observing children growing up, simply have a gut conviction that violent example can encourage imitation. For the future, sex can probably take care of itself. Violence must be where today's censorship debate continues to focus.

Salo, previously banned in Britain, has been given an 18 certificate by the British Board of Film Classification

"The Thousand Year Reich: art about tyranny" shows work by five artists (including Elisabeth Frink) concerned with the pleasure of power. It opens 5 January at the Rossi Gallery, London E1 (020 7377 9715)

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to the dirty mac image