When a film is labeled as “disturbing” –and particularly “very” disturbing—the cynic in me says: “Is this true for even a minority of film-goers or is it just a marketing ploy?” I cannot escape marketing influence how jaded I am or how much I claim otherwise. So I do linger a little longer over a decision whether to watch a disturbing movie than I would if that wasn’t a component of the description. Having outgrown the horror version of “disturbing” this leaves the emotional and cultural versions. I am a fan, more often than not, of David Lynch, Peter Greenaway, and Lars von Trier, (all of whom owe something to the artist/director Pier Paolo Pasolini) so it’s going to take a lot to shock me to the point of being agape. I had to have my jaw reset from agaping to dislocation. I’ve also found a “limit film”—if anything is released that claims to be more disturbing and especially depraved than Salo, I’ll take their word for it.
The plot is simple enough. Four Italian fascists and two women who are basically bordello madams get a small group of paramilitary-type soldiers to kidnap 9 male “victims” and 9 female “victims.” The victims are assembled in a countryside villa where they are told that they are going to be used in any sexual and degrading manner the men desire. Further they are told that they will be killed for non-compliance and further still that as far as the outside world is concerned they are already dead.
The depraved routine starts with one of the two women telling some sort of fantasy story (allegedly drawn from their own experiences), nearly all of them involving elimination behavior (urination and defecation). At any point during or after these tales, the four fascists, and occasionally the guards, can do whatever they like to any of the victims. It isn’t an explicit rule, but most of these actions occur with everyone else as audience. They are party to or audience to all victims naked, leashed and collared acting as dogs and forced to beg for food, infantilism, urination fantasies, at least one mock execution, (most famously/infamously) coprophagia.
Oh and just run of the mill rape.
And all of that before the end, which is telegraphed in general but whose details are …well, if you can handle 60 minutes of humiliation and degradation then the last ten minutes of probable fatal torture will be a relative picnic—it is shown through a closed window so we get all the horrific visuals without what would be intolerable sound.
The movie’s alternate title, The 120 Days of Sodom, comes from the book of the same name written by the Marquis de Sade and is loosely divided into circles like Dante’s Inferno: Ante-inferno, where the victims are chosen, transported, and given the rules; the Circle of Mania, where the degradations are kept to the relatively tame infantilism, sacrilege, and rape; the Circle of Shit where the depravity increases to a fetid repugnance implied by the section title; and finally the Circle of Blood where the victims are tortured to death.
Fun for the whole family.
My gut tells me that reviewers who actually finish the film are feel compelled to write about it in a way that is different than reviewing even another art film. Salo’s extremity demands something like justification where we can gloss over that aspect for most other controversial films. The film did leave me with much to say—too much for a standard review, so I’m going to examine the standard elements of film moving to the recommendation. I am going to continue with a more formal review that I will either post separately or add to the end of this review depending on what seems appropriate when I finish it.
Salo must be taken as metaphor (a complex and often mixed one) or the movie is just seriously twisted, fetish porn. It seems that Pasolini was primarily a poet, so that the medium for this poem is film is, regrettably, incidental (at least it seems that way to me). So the traditional modes of cinematic presentation are held hostage to the necessity that it all work as metaphor first. The events occur inside what looks like an 18th century villa. It isn’t decrepit but it is aged and cracking—the symbolism here should be, and is, very obvious. From the level of this portion of the review, that symbolic obviousness carries through the remainder of the cinematic facets.
I described the plot that the story propels at a spastic pace. Most of it involves everyone sitting still while one of the ancient madam/prostitutes natters on about some extreme kink that would make the boys of South Park vomit, then one of the fascists makes a speech or short statement, then one or more of the innocents is abused. There are a few moments of action outside this formal design. They progress, though, in the same way where the action is secondary to its meaning—in this case the meaning is just how fast “civilization” can collapse when decadence is dictator. Thus, the story’s telling is actually fairly dull.
This is amplified by the horrific acting (again the metaphor is sovereign and the acting is the metaphor at its most artless). There are three types: the fascists (the madams are in this category), the guards, and the victims. The guards are all young and generally attractive but their behavior indicates that they are only a few years away from becoming the full evil that the fascists represent. The fascists are types: bishop, duke, magistrate, president and the two madams represent two levels of fetish extremity the relatively tame white kind and the over the top black kind. The men are either truly ugly or the behavior is so deeply evil that they don’t have to try hard to present ugly souls. The two women are essentially hags that know how to apply makeup. The victims are all attractive and spend nearly all of their screentime worried for the simple fact that the hideous have complete control.
The actors’ jobs are to “look” a part, not actually play one—as such providing a list of actors is pointless. The visual formula is camera does close-up of either an eager ugly face or a worried pretty one; there is a lengthy pause and the ugly face makes a soulless speech, or the worried pretty one overacts fear and dread.
I want to hate the adults and have deep compassion for the young. Instead I just mourn for the weeks of work the actual people put into making this movie. Worse, I have is something akin to true hatred for Mr. Pasolini for hoisting this thing on the planet just before he died.
It is not “for mature audiences” where “viewer discretion is advised.” The only audience for the film that doesn’t scare the crap out of me is a group of cineastes, artists, and intellectuals all arguing about it. You can be certain that the streets would be free from “thinkers” for the few hours we spent in the lecture hall trying to explain why this group’s metaphorical interpretation of poo-eating is not as convincing as mine. As for viewer discression … glibly … the best discretion here is not to view it at all.
"Salo" or "The 120 Days of Sodom" A Shocking Pasolini Amos Lassen "Salo" is a powerful movie that shakes us out of out casual attitude to film violence. It is a movie that has been condemned as pornographic and it leaves the viewer with strong impressions and he sits on the edge of his seat for the entire 140 minutes that passes as this movie plays. So strong is the film that many think that the director's, (Pier Paolo Pasolini) … more
A loose adaptation of the Marquis de Sade'sThe 120 Days of Sodom, Pier Paolo Pasolini'sSalòis perhaps the most disturbing and disgusting film ever made. It is also one of the most important, offering a blistering critique of fascism and idealism that suggests moral redemption may be nothing but a myth. Criterion presentsSalòin its uncut, uncensored version.