ByScott Wardell, writer at
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Scott Wardell

On November 2, 1975, only a few months before the release of arguably his most controversial film — Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom — director Pier Paolo Pasolini was found murdered on the beach at Ostia, a short car ride away from Rome's city center. His body was mutilated and burned, his testicles crushed, and he had multiple broken bones as a result of being repeatedly run over by his own car. Due to a plethora of theories surrounding Pasolini's death — from extortion to a mafia-style hit — and inconclusive evidence, the case remains unsolved to this day.

Although Pasolini never saw the theatrical release of his finished work Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, the film would securely root itself in cinema history for its bold and graphic depictions of sadism, sexual deviance and perversion, coprophagia, mutilation and murder. Salò remains banned in several countries around the world and may have played a bigger role in the director's tragic end than previously thought.

'Salò, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom'

'Salò' [Credit: United Artists]
'Salò' [Credit: United Artists]

Inspired by the Marquis de Sade novel 120 Days of Sodom, Salò recounts the events that took place over four months in the Republic of Salò, an area of northern Italy once home to the fascist Italian Social Republic (1943–1945). Four powerful and wealthy men kidnap 18 teenagers and keep them prisoner in a grand palace in the Italian countryside where they are forced to undergo abject humiliation, sadistic acts of torture and listen to the tales of middle-aged prostitutes as they recount their perverse exploits with former clients.

What follows is 116 minutes of intensely disturbing depictions that earned the film dozens of censorship bans upon its release as well as some less-than-favorable attention on behalf of the director, who was an outspoken activist.

Pasolini's Political Views Were Not Shared By All

Pasolini and Fellini [Credit: Wikicommons]
Pasolini and Fellini [Credit: Wikicommons]

Pasolini had more than one axe to grind, and he used his films, poems, and writings as a way to make potent commentary about issues regarding political corruption, homosexuality, fascism, and the abuse of power. His controversial style, personal life and attitude toward those in power made him one of the most talked-about figures of his time. Pasolini's murder was often thought to have been the result of his outwardly vocal convictions, and news of his untimely passing sent waves throughout artists' circles in Italy.

Piecing Together The Murder

Then 17-year-old Giuseppe Pelosi was arrested for the murder of Pasolini after he was caught speeding in the director's stolen car. According to his initial testimony, Pelosi claimed that Pasolini propositioned him for sex. When Pelosi refused, a fight broke out between them. Pelosi grabbed two table legs nearby and beat the director before running over "what [he] thought was a bump in the road." Pelosi was convicted in 1976. He later confessed to his cellmate that he was responsible for Pasolini's death.

[Credit: Wikicommons]
[Credit: Wikicommons]

This, however, would not be the end of the Pasolini murder case. Roman police were forced to revisit the Pasolini investigation nearly 30 years later when Pelosi retracted his confession in May of 2005. Pelosi claimed that his guilty confession was merely a ploy to protect his family, who were threatened with violence should Pelosi reveal that others may have been involved in Pasolini's murder.

In Pelosi's second testimony, he confirmed that there were three men that night on the beach in Ostia, many of whom quite possibly could have been mafia affiliates, burning Pasolini's body with gasoline and calling him a "dirty communist." Despite suggestions that the mafia may have organized a hit on Pasolini, further investigation proved inconclusive. Meanwhile, new evidence regarding Pasolini's final film also surfaced in 2005, suggesting that foul play may have lured Pasolini out to Ostia that night in November.

Missing Film Reels And Extortion

'Salò' [Credit: United Artists]
'Salò' [Credit: United Artists]

Further adding to the mystery surrounding Salò's production, a few film rolls were stolen during shooting. In a testimony by Pasolini's friend Sergio Citti, the film rolls were being held for ransom and may have led Pasolini to collect them in Ostia, directly into the ambush that ended his life. The footage was never recovered. What, then, became of Pasolini's unfinished film?

Piecing Together Pasolini's Masterpiece

'Salò' [Credit: United Artists]
'Salò' [Credit: United Artists]

In order to complete Salò, B-roll footage from alternate camera angles was used to assemble the version of the film that we see today. Knowledge of this missing footage further enhances the unsettling and disjointed sentiments of the film's narrative, echoing the director's unfinished work on what has become his most enduring and controversial legacy.

With no concrete evidence or further leads, the Roman police have all but closed the book on the Pasolini murder. It seems oddly fitting that the director's final, most potent critique of politics and society remains one of the most infamous films ever created.


Which of the theories surrounding the Pasolini murder do you think sounds most plausible?

(Sources: La Razón, Image Credit: Salò [United Artists])


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