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Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

Review by: 
Suicide Blonde
Release Date: 
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Pier Paolo Pasolini
Paolo Bonacelli
Giorgio Cataldi
Umberto Quintavalle
Aldo Valletti
Bottom Line: 

One of the more famous "endurance test" movies, Salò is no mere exploitation film. It's serious, and has a statement to make, but whether these qualities are worth the rough sledding of the film itself is debatable.

Pier Paolo Pasolini's film takes de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom to World War II Italy. Four fascists — the President, the Bishop, the Duke, and the Magistrate — enter into a pact to satisfy their lust for power and their most base desires. After sealing the pact by marrying each other's daughters, the fascists and their thugs kidnap nine young men and nine young women to be their captive playthings at a remote mansion. The captives are forbidden to have any religious practices, and disobedience is punishable by loss of a limb or by death. The fascists have brought along four prostitutes: one provides piano accompaniment (and begins to look more and more distraught as the days go on and the emotional, sexual, and physical cruelty the men dole out becomes worse); the others gleefully recount increasingly vile tales of perversion, which the fascists use for inspiration.

It's difficult to pin down what makes Salò so disturbing after all these years. Though it's famous for its scenes of coprophagia (look it up... or on second thought, don't) and bloodshed, there's a much more subtle scene early on that lets the viewers know what they're in for. As the four fascists search for their perfect victims, they reject one beautiful girl because she is missing a tooth. But another girl, who's naked, and sobbing because she just witnessed the death of her mother (who was trying to stop the girl from being kidnapped), is clearly what the four men are looking for. Their looks of delight at her humiliation and misery will give you chills.

What may be most unsettling about the film is its peculiarly detached quality. It doesn't leer at or take pleasure in the tortures, but merely sits back and records what's happening. We're given ample information about what's to come (the film is divided into four sections: the Antechamber to Hell, the Circle of Obsessions, the Circle of Shit, and the Circle of Blood), but this only gives the viewer time to dread what's about to unfold. And there is no music or other cue to prepare yourself for the nastiness. Terrible things can happen at any moment. Even the fascists' daughters aren't safe (in fact, they're singled out for some of the worst humiliations, which makes you wonder what happened to the fascists' wives). This detachedness is most horrifying in the movie's end sequence of torture and murder, which the audience sees only through the eyes of the fascists, who coldly observe the proceedings from a balcony, with binoculars — the lack of sound and the quick glimpses of violence are somehow worse than if the cameras had been down in the thick of things.

One of the film's problems may also be its saving grace: there is practically no characterization. We learn nothing about the characters as the film progresses, and this goes for the oppressors as well as the oppressed. While this prevents the viewer from making a connection to the characters, this may not entirely be a bad thing — it's difficult enough to watch ciphers being beaten, whipped, forced to act like dogs, made to eat shit, raped, tortured, and murdered. If these things were happening to characters we knew and cared about, the film would be even more unbearable than it already is.

Yet as much as a reprieve as this is, at the end of the film one is left wondering just what point Pasolini was trying to make. The film isn't gleeful exploitation in the Ilsa vein, yet its statements aren't terribly profound, nor will they come as much of a surprise to most viewers. Fascism is bad. Yes, that's true. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Indeed. There is such a thing as being too kinky. Glad to hear that. Going along with an oppressive regime may buy you time, but that's all. Again, a worthy point but Pasolini may have been preaching to the choir.

Adding to this sense of "what's the point?" is that the film's progression is so methodical and inevitable. At the beginning, viewers may have hope that the Allies will arrive and save the day (throughout the film the sound of bombers and battle is heard), yet the mansion remains untouched and no help arrives. Any hope that the captives can rebel is snuffed out in the final chapter, when they rat each other out for a chance at survival. It's clear from the beginning that as the fascists play out their desires, it will take ever-greater levels of violence and humiliation to bring them satisfaction. And at the end, the torch is passed on to the next generation, as two young guards are so inured to the horrors that they pass the time by dancing.

Salò is probably the most problematic film I've ever seen, and as such it's impossible for me to simply say yes or no as to whether or not someone should see it. It lacks the entertaining qualities of other controversial films, and perhaps that is the best point to take away from the film. That in reality, violence and oppression aren't entertaining. They're just ugly and cruel. 

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