Salò and censorship: a history

By Craig Lapper, with thanks to James Ferman

This is an updated version of an article that first appeared on the bfi website in August 2000.

Salò had its first screening in Britain at the Old Compton Street cinema club in 1977. It was shown in its full uncut version 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.

Still: Salo

Salò 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 Obscene Publications Act - 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 Board 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 Salò 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'.

Clearly, this film was very different from Pasolini's 'trilogy of life' and sexual liberation which had preceded it (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and The Arabian Nights), and 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 that it could be seen uncut as Pasolini had intended. The police prosecution was an embarrassment, and Ferman intervened and spoke to the Deputy DPP.

By that time the campaign to bring films within the scope of the Obscene Publications Act, 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, as could its cultural and artistic value. Nonetheless, it was made clear to Ferman that charges might still be brought under the 'deprave and corrupt' test of the Obscene Publications Act 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 club version. 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 - the coprophagia, the extreme violence at the end of the film, and certain elements of homosexual behaviour that were believed to be vulnerable to prosecution. It also added an on-screen prologue to legally 'explain' the context of Mussolini's regime at Salò and the writings of the Marquis de Sade. This version was shown at club cinemas throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s and became a regular feature at the Scala Club Cinema in King's Cross, where it often screened on double bills with Pasolini's Porcile (classified 'X' uncut by the BBFC). 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.

By the early 1990s the only surviving print of this edited version was almost unwatchable and badly damaged, as the apologies in the Scala's programme notes from 1990 onwards attest. Possibly the last screening of the cut version was at the Electric Cinema in 1993. The uncut version of the film resurfaced at the NFT in 1996 as part of the bfi's Pasolini retrospective, coinciding with the publication of The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini by Sam Rohdie. The print provided to the NFT in 1996 was the full version, on loan from the Fondo Pier Paolo Pasolini, and this may have been the first time this version had been seen in the UK since the NFT's Pasolini season in 1982. The 1996 NFT screening was certainly the last public screening of Salò in the UK until late in 2000 when the film was revived in a new print by the bfi.

The bfi, the BBFC and Salò

In September 2000, the bfi unveiled its new, uncut print of Salò at a two day conference at the ICA in London. The conference coincided with the publication of a bfi Modern Classic on the film by Gary Indiana and preceded a proposed resubmission of the film to the BBFC. The conference included two screenings of the film, a series of talks about Salò and a general panel discussion. Participants in the conference included James Ferman, former Director of the BBFC, Sam Rodhie, David Forgacs, and Gary Indiana.

Salò 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 guidelines, in September 2000, themselves the result of a major process of public consultation. The Board had stated in its News Release when launching these 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 Board was satisfied that Salò 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 Board, as well as by the Board's 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.

Still: Salo

In reaching the decision to pass Salò '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 Obscene Publications Act. In fact, Salò's purpose and its likely effect on viewers seemed to be quite the opposite. In the Board'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 Board 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 Board 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 Board was conscious that although the film had been considered potentially 'indecent' at law in 1976, the protection now granted by the Obscene Publications Act (extended to cover film in 1977) made Salò less problematic in 2000. The Obscene Publications Act requires that any film should be considered as a whole and that its more difficult scenes should not be considered in isolation. Given Salò's serious purpose, and its avoidance of titilatory or pornographic content, the Board concluded that the film could not be considered obscene within the meaning of the Act, nor regarded as harmful to viewers.

The Board also considered that, ultimately, Salò, 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 Board did recognise the public's desire for more detailed consumer advice, also highlighted by the recent public consultation exercise, and the consumer advice issued for Salò drew clear attention to the content of the film: "Contains strong violence, sexual violence and scenes of torture and degradation".

After the BBFC had classified the film, Salò was screened at the ICA, NFT and a number of regional film theatres. The print remains available for hire from the bfi, although the easy availability of the video and DVD version - released in 2001 - has probably done more to make Salò accessible to a wider audience. Ironically, before the BBFC agreed to classify the film for video and DVD release, copies of the deleted Region 1 DVD of the film were changing hands for up to £300.00 on ebay. From 2001, by contrast, the film would be available on video and DVD in the UK from any outlet for a far more modest outlay. Almost inevitably, Salò appeared late in 2001 on the Film Four channel, introduced by Mark Kermode. The screening was accompanied by a half hour documentary on the film, 'Salò - Fade to Black', featuring behind-the-scenes footage of Pasolini working on set.

It worth mentioning at this point an earlier - and unsuccessful - attempt by Sky Television to screen Salò in 1991. In the early 1990s the BBFC was providing regular advice on standards to Sky Television, checking, classifying - and where necessary cutting - works for TV satellite screenings. In 1991 Sky submitted the uncut version of Salò for satellite transmission. The BBFC concluded that Salò was unsuitable for broadcast at any time. It was the only film to be rejected for TV screening amongst the works submitted by Sky. The BBFC's 1992 Annual Report contains the following details: '[Sky] were informed that Pasolini's last study of sadism, Salò - 120 Days of Sodom, was unlikely to be suitable for television in any form'. By 2001 things had clearly changed.

Europe and elsewhere

Salò has for many years been available in France where it continues to play occasionally at Parisian art cinemas (French certificate '16' uncut). Until recently, it was also widely available on video in France (notably from the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysees). On its original 1970s release in France, however, Salò was rated 'X' and confined - along with Ai No Corrida - to limited screenings in Paris porn cinemas (similar to the recent situation with Baise-Moi).

Salò has also been available uncut on video in Italy (where legal action was originally taken against it in the mid 1970s), uncut on video in Germany, and in a strangely trimmed version in Holland (with, amongst other things, some of the whipping reduced). In Denmark and Austria where there is no adult film censorship, Salò is a de facto '16' uncut. In a notable example of Nordic liberalism, Salò was passed '15' uncut in Sweden as early as 1976, a decision that the Swedish Censors commented caused 'some surprise' with the public. This was particularly so given the Swedes traditionally hard line attitude on violence (which contrasts with their famously liberal attitude to sex).

Across the border, Salò fared less well in Finland, where it was originally refused a release in 1976. Nonetheless, in 1984 the Finish Film Archive were granted permission for the film to be shown to persons over 18 at two special screenings at the Film Archive cinema. A subsequent submission by Universal Artists for general release in 1985 was unsurprisingly unsuccessful and the film remained banned in Finland until 2001 when adult film censorship was finally abolished.

In the former Eastern Bloc countries, the fall of communism has led to an almost complete end to censorship. In one amusing example during 1999, Salò played in a Czech drive in theatre, billed on posters around Prague as 'Pasolini's controversial historical drama'. Salò had become a date movie for the first - and probably only - time in its history.

Salò has also been released on video in the US in an uncut, unrated version, also briefly being made available by Criterion on DVD in 1999. The DVD was withdrawn shortly after release although stories vary as to whether this was due to a botch over rights or the film's content. Given the film's long availability on video in the States it seems that the former is more likely. Interestingly, Salò's censorship record in the US is not as unblemished as this might suggest, largely as a result of the arbitrary enforcement of 'local community standards'. A copy of the video was seized from the Pink Pyramid gay bookshop in Cincinnati in 1994, although the case was subsequently thrown out on a technicality. The US 'Video Retriever' guide to this day recommends 'discretion' when ordering this title.

The most recent banning of Salò appears to be in Australia. Salò was first banned in Australia in 1976 and was refused classification a number of times after that. In 1993 the ban was finally overturned but this led to a number of awkward questions being asked in Parliament about the Office of Film and Literature Classification's decision. After an amendment to Australian law in 1996, Salò was reviewed again and its classification withdrawn in 1998.

Finally, it is interesting to note that in the UK, Salò has historically often been screened under the title Pasolini's 120 Days of Sodom. The BBFC's record for the 1976 film reject and the 1991 satellite TV reject both list the film as 120 Days of Sodom (see the BBFC website for details). Like the earlier 'Trilogy of Life', until 2000 Salò had only been made available in the UK in a dubbed English language version and never under the on-screen title Salò. The 1996 NFT screenings of the uncut version were, however, Italian language with subtitles and correctly titled Salò, as were the 2000 cinema and 2001 video and DVD releases.

Craig Lapper is Chief Assistant (Policy) at the British Board of Film Classification. He has also written pieces on the censorship history of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (for the Universal DVD release) and Straw Dogs (for the Freemantle DVD release).

Last Updated: Friday, 31-Aug-2007 16:13:11 BST