Perverse, disturbing and chilling, but also essential, Pasolini’s controversial final film evokes both disgust and fascination in equal measure.
Cast: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle
Plot: Four fascist libertines round up nine adolescent boys and girls and subject them to a hundred and twenty days of physical, mental and sexual torture.
Awards: Official Selection (Locarno)
Subject Matter: Mature/Disturbing – Sexual Humiliation, Torture, Fascism
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Niche Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 17 Nov 2015
Shocking as it is, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom would probably still come as a surprise to viewers familiar with not just the works of Pier Paolo Pasolini, but particularly the direction he took with his ‘Trilogy of Life’ – The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974), a wildly provocative series of films centering on the medieval age and based on old-world literature.
There is a lot of sex, religious blasphemy and scatological fetishes, things that men and women expressed more liberally in the past, with no constraints other than the constraint of thought and imagination. It is with this context that Salo, no matter how ghastly and disgusting it is, can be seen as serving as an extreme counterpoint to the aforementioned trilogy.
Set in the Fascist period of the early 1940s, but based on Marquis de Sade’s notorious work written in the late 1700s, Pasolini envisioned a parable of gruesome death and sadomasochistic torture, and of unimaginable constraint, seeking to mirror the capitalistic and consumeristic excess of the modern world (of the then 1970s).
Of course, the end game for Pasolini is always political. With Salo, he brings up Italy’s nightmarish past under Mussolini, as well as his disdain towards how his country has become – the Italians were prisoners of their own circumstance.
“I can’t eat rice.”
“Then eat shit.”
For Salo, perversity is a necessity. It is also morbidly fascinating. The film is about four men with power who capture twenty boys and girls in order to humiliate, torture and sodomize them in an isolated villa.
Told in four chapters, namely ‘Antechamber of Hell’, ‘Circle of Obsessions’, Circle of Shit, and ‘Circle of Blood’, the film escalates structurally in its no-holds-barred depiction of depravity. It is no doubt disturbing and chilling, the stuff of nightmares, including scenes that once seen cannot be unseen.
Yet Pasolini’s formal brilliance, especially his gorgeous art direction and costume design, and composed cinematography, gives us a film that is far from being exploitative (though naysayers would be inclined to think otherwise).
It is better to think of Salo as confrontational cinema than anything else, well after all it doesn’t stoop to the level of, say, the notorious ‘The Human Centipede’ flicks or A Serbian Film (2010).
Salo is also endlessly fascinating because it is a singular work. Never will a filmmaker be as uncompromising and audacious as Pasolini; neither will we also see a film of this sort ever again. For that, it is essential viewing, and is arguably Pasolini’s most important film. It dares you to tackle it with the knowledge that there may be no point of return.