Salo: Or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini
Starring:Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti
It's been 34 years since 'Salo' and the notorious last film from Italy director Pier Paolo Pasolini is still the sickest, more gruesome and controversial film ever made. A tonally faithful adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s torture novel written while in prison '120 Days of Sodom', set in Fascist Italy - The story of a small group of libertine Italy aristocrats who gather a kidnap of 18 young men and woman and subject them to 4 months of heinous sexual acts, torture, rape, and basically any kind of sexual defiance known to man.
However depraved, 'Salo' actually works as a jet black comedy. Admirable as a piece of bourgeois surrealism, mocking class systems and the rights of men over other men, in the tradition of Luis Buneul and Salvador Dali. Pasolini bravely doesn’t hold back showing us the most despicable acts of sex and violence, including bondage, forcing people to eat faeces, body mutilation and of course lots of sodomy, in order to a) exercise his own personal fetishes on screen and 2) to give another stab into the notion of right and title of the class system.
There's very little in the way of a through line, characters or even a narrative purpose. And perhaps the most disturbing aspect is that the torturers never get their comeuppance. So what’s the purpose of this all? Made in Pasolini’s elder age it serves as an artistic statement to test the boundaries of cinema and art. The final moments of torture before the boys and girls are executed are the most horrific displays of torture ever put to screen. Thus the film becomes a metaphor for the degradation of man and civilization told with terrifying audacity.
Taking away the raping and debaucherous acts, visually Pasolini's photographs nudes like artists have been doing for centuries - another contrast between sophistication and the sordid. His imagery is continually fascinating, the site of the naked men and women with leashes on crawling up the stairs is an indelible image. The formal compositions and classical Roman art direction match well together. Pasolini’s style even resembles Stanley Kubrick. His symmetrical compositions and use of the female nude body as background art decoration. The orgy rituals also is evident in 'Eyes Wide Shut'.
Salo isn’t a film to 'enjoy' per se, but to be shocked by. Pasolini doesn't 'enjoy' showing us these images. It's different than Lars Von Trier, who in his films seems to enjoy punishing his characters. Of course we don’t ever get to know any of the characters in Salo, they all seem to be props and furniture for the film more than emotional beings. Pasolini purposely doesn't have his characters react to any of the torture either, thus keeping a distance emotionality from the events like a clinical analyst.
Curiously, in a truly bizarre moment of life intimately art, Pasolini was murdered shortly before the picture was released. Apparently killed by a male prostitute who ran over Pasolini’s body numerous times near his home. The boy confessed, although later rescinded it claiming he covered up for a more nefarious group of anti-communists. Is this perhaps an act of Karma? Michelangelo Antonioni remarked Pasolini was a victim of his own characters. Regardless, 'Salo' continues to be a film which cinema just cannot ignore.