Salo: Or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini
Starring:Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti
By Alan Bacchus
It's been 36 years since Salo was released, and the notorious final film from Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini is still the sickest, most gruesome and controversial film ever made. It’s a tonally faithful adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s torture novel, 120 Days of Sodom, written while in prison and set in Fascist Italy. The story follows a small group of libertine Italian aristocrats who gather and kidnap 18 young men and woman and subject them to four 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. It’s 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 feces, body mutilation and, of course, lots of sodomy in order to a) exercise his own personal fetishes on screen and 2) give another stab at the notion of the 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 all this? 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 photographs nudes as 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 on leashes 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 with his symmetrical compositions and use of the female nude body as background art decoration. The orgy rituals are also evident in Eyes Wide Shut.
Salo isn’t a film to 'enjoy' per se, but rather to be shocked by. Pasolini doesn't 'enjoy' showing us these images. It's different than Lars Von Trier, who seems to enjoy punishing the characters in his films. Of course, we don’t ever get to know any of the characters in Salo, as 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 imitating 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 he later rescinded his story claiming he covered up for a more nefarious group of anti-communists. Is this perhaps an act of karma? Michelangelo Antonioni remarked that Pasolini was a victim of his own characters. Regardless, Salo continues to be a film that cinema simply cannot ignore.
Salo: Or the 120 Days of Sodom is available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.