Semi-Reconcilable Differences: Salò and Australia

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

Program Coordinator and President of The Melbourne Cinémathèque Louise Sheedy explores the censorship row in Australia over Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

The blood and shit-caked Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is an eerily clinical window into the inexhaustible nature of human depravity and cruelty and is, without doubt, one of the most notorious films in the history of international cinema. Over 116 minutes Pier Paolo Pasolini uses the film’s Sadean roots to explore the corruptive, corrosive nature of social and political power structures, dragging his viewers through unimaginable scenes of extreme violence and sexual degradation, the majority of which is inflicted upon a group of teenagers kidnapped for the express purposes of fulfilling the nefarious desires of their fascist-libertine captors.

Released in 1975 into a lion’s den of controversy, the film was banned in many countries, bans which, in many cases, continue to this day. Censors argue that the unflinching nature of the film’s depictions of depravity make mute any claim to artistic license, particularly because those who suffer so horribly on screen are minors.  In the decades following the film’s release, campaigns lead by celebrated filmmakers, film scholars and arts organisations across the world have celebrated the film’s explicit depictions as essential to the bitterness of Pasolini’s critique, and that the director’s approach to his subject – his analytical camera, his careful construction of character, etc etc – culminate in a brilliantly rendered political allegory that is justifiably harrowing. We at The Melbourne Cinémathèque obviously share this view.  The film will speak for itself when we screen in February but a brief history of the film’s turbulent classification history in Australia gives a local context.

Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pier Paolo Pasolini

If Australia was on Facebook, it would inevitably mark its relationship to Salò as ‘complicated’, the film falling in and out of favour with the Office of Film and Literature Classification several times since its arrival on our shores – first banned in 1976. Sixteen years later however, Premium Films applied for classification for a 115 min version which was eventually denied but the board was divided; a minority voted for the film to get an R18+. Premium Films appealed the decision successfully and in 1993, Salò was granted the R18+ rating and the film was released in Sydney and Melbourne the same year. The reprieve was not to last too long.

In 1998, as the result of strong lobbying from Christian and conservative groups, lobbying that was eventually lead by National – later Liberal –Senator Julian McGauran, the film was up again for review. Senator McGauran presented a total of five petitions to the Classification Board in 1993 alone and more in the following years. His crusade was eventually bolstered by the voice of Reverend Fred Nile who argued to the NSW Legislative Assembly in ‘93 that ‘the film was produced as a deliberate attack on attempts to censor such pornographic films’ and was created by an ‘apparently sexually perverse person’. These rumbles were heard across the states and the Legislative Assemblies of South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland began to debate the wisdom of banning the film throughout the mid-nineties. Premiere Wayne Goss supported the Commonwealth ban, calling it ‘appalling trash’.

By 1997 the theatrical run of the film had ended and, because it was banned from VHS distribution, the film was set to be largely forgotten. But the crusaders, particularly McGauran, weren’t finished yet. By 1998 the film was up for review again thanks to a request from the Queensland Attorney General and this time, the conservative campaign was successful. The film was banned once more. Over the next few years, debate continued in state parliaments and occasionally in the media, debates which were fired up when the Melbourne Underground Film Festival proposed a protest screening in 2002.

A scene from Salo

A scene from Salo

In 2008, with McGauran still bringing the film to the attention of parliament, a DVD release proposed by Shock distribution was refused classification. Shock presented yet another application for the film in April 2010 and the R18+ classification was finally restored. The now-familiar outrage ensued, and McGauran got back on his horse, now attacking Donald McDonald – the head of the Classification Board -directly and calling for his resignation. The review was held in May 2010 and the decision was held; Shock’s Salò kept its R18+ rating, saved because of the extensive contextual material provided in the DVD extras and because of the distance provided by the decades since its original release. The film can now be screened theatrically in Australia but only if accompanied by hours of contextual material released with the DVD and Bluray distributed by Shock. So that’s what we’ll be doing.

On Wednesday 26 February, the Cinematheque will open its doors at the uncharacteristically early time of 3.30pm, inviting members to view the group of documentaries that provide context to Pasolini’s final masterpiece. The feature starts at 7pm and you are not required by law to view the preceding material to gain entry. That’s our hurdle, not yours. But we do encourage you to come. The seven short documentaries provide a thought-provoking look into this infamous piece of cine-history and provide a voyeuristic window into the creative processes of Pasolini- wunderkind of Italian cinema, and a man whose violent death a week prior to Salò’s release prevented him from experiencing any of this controversy first hand.

For much, much more detail on Salò’s  checkered political history in Australia see the excellent rundown at Refused Classification.

– Louise Sheedy, Program Coordinator and President of The Melbourne Cinémathèque 

Salò and the accompanying documentaries screen on Wed 26 Feb from 3.30pm at ACMI.

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One Response to “Semi-Reconcilable Differences: Salò and Australia”

  1. Chris King 26. Feb, 2014 at 3:40 am #

    I find this film a true masterpiece and I think the controversy that surrounds it only adds to its cultural value.
    It is especially intriguing how the Australian Classification Board decided to let the film be screened with the documentaries in tandem, but to be honest, I think it is a splendid idea. I’m sure that many people will attend the whole screening, to familiarize themselves with every facet of this masterpiece.

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