Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination which runs from March 8th to April 12th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
With Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, wherein young boys and girls are kidnapped and used as objects of pleasure and torture by four fascist libertines, Pasolini crafts one of the most depraved and controversial films ever made. It comes as no surprise, as Pasolini’s previous work, such as The CanterburyTales (1972) and The Decameron (1971), attest to his interests in depravity, sexuality, and satire. What makes Salo especially tense and defamatory is the rationalism which Pasolini imparts. Scenes of indecent acts, such as rape and force-feeding, are interspersed by scenes in which the four “villains” hold philosophical conversations about their way of life.
In rationalizing what they are doing, the villains are not treated as insane psychopaths as found in other films about torture; the men are logical and use this to support their belief that “all things are good when taken to excess”. These men recognize the evils of their ways, yet they embrace it and share it with the world.
With Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, wherein young boys and girls are kidnapped and used as objects of pleasure and torture by four fascist libertines, Pasolini crafts one of the most depraved and controversial films ever made.
Adapted from 120 Days of Sodom, a book written by French aristocrat The Marquis de Sade, Pasolini’s Salo finds itself in Italy during Nazi occupation. There, four French libertines subject 18 boys and girls to 120 days of sexual, physical, and mental torture. The film was exceedingly controversial upon its release, with many countries banning it for years. Despite the acts of sadism, torture, perversion, and sexuality, which are powerfully and unflinchingly depicted by Pasolini, Salo has come to be respected for its social satire, political themes, and its unabashed depiction of sexual perversion and the abuse of power.
Salo is split into four segments, which are based on Dante’s Inferno: The Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit, and the Circle of Blood. During the Anteinferno, boys and girls are captured and taken to a secluded mansion where they will live out their 120 days of torture. A group of men, including the four villains in addition to others, pick their favourite nine boys and girls. What happens to the rest of them is unknown, but you can bet it’s not pretty. These 18 boys and girls are then told the rules. They are told that they are, to the outside world, already dead, and that they must submit to the rules exactly as stipulated or else risk being punished.
The Circle of Manias simply provides an introduction to the villains and their indecent behaviour. While depicted as maniacs, driven by their desire of pleasure, their mania is driven by reason and their abidance to certain laws. The Circle of Shit gets its title from a scene wherein everyone, including the men and women in charge, experience the supposed pleasures of eating shit. To them, shit is a delicacy and the more putrid the better. According to Pasolini, this is a metaphor for consumer capitalism. This occurs shortly after a young girl is horrifically forced, like a dog, to eat a man’s fresh shit off the ground. The final segment of the film sees a select group of boys and girls submitted to acts of physical torture, where body parts, such as the eyes and tongue, are cut out.
As usual, Pasolini’s camera is rather cold, with meticulous close ups of faces and cool colours adding to both the rigidity of the boys’ and girls’ trials as well as the scrupulousness of the villains’ rationalizations.
Though sexual pleasure is what the villains seek most, they find sexual pleasure in any act wherein they assert power over another individual. As the Duke (Paolo Bonacelli) states, he, and the others presumably, never feel better than when they deprive another of their humility. The act of sodomy, to them, is the death of the human. The villains wish not to kill these boys and girls but to make them die again and again. Their dedication to this mandate quite horrifying; Pasolini has truly created some of the most evil villains known by cinema, even if they aren’t gruesomely murdering the innocent like in the typical horror film.
As usual, Pasolini’s camera is rather cold, with meticulous close ups of faces and cool colours adding to both the rigidity of the boys’ and girls’ trials as well as the scrupulousness of the villains’ rationalizations. While the film has recently been heralded for its brazen look at a feature of life that most would turn away from, Salo remains a detestable film with scenes of such discomfort that “enjoyment” of the film is completely unmanageable. For this reason, though it is undeniably an important film which demands to be discussed and theorized upon, it cannot provide an immersive or artful experience for the viewer.
While the film has recently been heralded for its brazen look at a feature of life that most would turn away from, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom remains a detestable film with scenes of such discomfort that “enjoyment” of the film is completely unmanageable.