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Since I first reviewed Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom, I have received several notes from readers, and inquiries from friends saying, "should I see it?" What a sticky situation to be placed in. My only response sounds like a joke but is not: If you have to ask, the answer is No. I personally find Salò too appalling to watch unless I am alone -- I'd feel like I was inflicting it on someone. There are plenty of happy people in this world who lack morbid imaginations, and very few of them really need to see this. What seems an even more hopeless exercise is to argue that Salò is legitimate film art, a scream of anger by a poet sick of civilized statements about human evil. Political convictions were central to Pier Paolo Pasolini, and he probably died because of them.
How does one measure the impact of what might be the most hideous work of artistic cinema? Ideas alone can be scary, horrible, atrocious things. Just remember that Salò is a fiction film, and what happens in it is not real, but faked. A true atrocity would be Vsevolod Pudovkin's 1926 Russian "documentary" Mechanics of the Brain a clinical account of Pavlov's experiments that apparently carved up various living animals, especially dogs, to illustrate functions of the nervous system and behaviorism. And then the researchers did the same sort of thing to human children. Critic David Cairns explains his reaction to this authentic filmic outrage at his blog, Shadowplay. I saw Mechanics of the Mind in college, and I share Mr. Cairns' opinion of Pavlov and Pudovkin.
Fictional films create a nightmare reality of their own even if they're just "make believe". When Salò was new the one Los Angeles theater that dared screen it barely advertised the booking; the word spread around town like some horrible secret. For any viewer of normal sensibilities, the film's shock value is completely off the chart -- it isn't pornography, it's something much stronger. Ironically, today's horror and torture-chic fans might not think much of Pasolini's handiwork, a thought that appalls this reviewer -- and fits in perfectly with the poet's pessimistic verdict that modern culture is a commercial cesspool that reduces human beings to a commodity that can be bought and sold.
The Marquis de Sade put his most inhuman and licentious ideas down on paper as a way of scandalizing and mocking the intelligentsia of his day, of committing literary subversion against the power system. Pasolini's film aestheticizes the unthinkable. Repulsed viewers will be forgiven if they interpret Salò itself as a source of Evil. It's dangerous stuff. Perhaps that's why the concept of Taboo was invented.
Salò is of course highly political. It's set in the last months of Benito Mussolini's 'second government' when the Germans brought Il Duce back to run a puppet Fascist state in the North of Italy. Cornered Fascists enjoyed a short but bloody resurgence, murdering and torturing partisans and opposition politicians. Pasolini uses this horrible situation to restage Marquis de Sade's tale about a group of depraved libertines that hole up in a castle and amuse themselves by degrading, torturing and murdering a number of young victims. De Sade's perverse logic would argue that these reactionary perverts are imitating God's work on Earth -- causing pointless suffering and misery.
Pasolini made Salò as an extreme expression of his fury and despair at the world. The student 'revolution' of 1968 had come to nothing and the same conservative, exploitative forces were firmly in power everywhere. Pasolini was a confirmed Communist and conducted a rather risky homosexual life. He was greatly admired by intellectual leftists in the Italian film industry. Pasolini's previous career was not a succession of shocking movies. His The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a devout film about the life of Jesus, was honored worldwide. Pasolini filmed his passion play with simple peasants instead of movie stars, emphasizing teachings over miracles.
While Salò was being dubbed for foreign markets, its director was brutally murdered, beaten to death in an ambush. Made to look like a crime perpetrated by a gay pickup, evidence suggests a conspiracy by right-wing thugs. (See the fair-minded biography Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die.) Salò was banned in Italy. It was screened at a French festival in such a way that Italian supporters were not allowed to make statements. Pasolini never got the chance to see his film premiered or to defend it to a hostile press. Sensational news attention guaranteed that the grotesque horrors of Salò would forever be directly associated with Pasolini's brutal murder.
Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom is one of the most disturbing films ever made. The photography is formal and painterly, and Pasolini's camera calmly rests in wide shots on the most disturbing scenes imaginable. Compositions often show groupings of soldiers, the libertines and their prisoners, as in a classical painting.
Pasolini carefully limits our point of view. The only characters developed in detail are the inhuman libertines, all authority figures -- a nobleman, church representative, banker, etc.. The ritualized cruelties at the remote villa begin with the libertines cynically marrying each other's daughters, as an initial affront to bourgeois decency. The victims, mostly the sons and daughters of well-to-do anti-Fascists and dissidents, have been rounded up by Mussolini's secret police, with the help of the Germans. Group denial makes the victims obedient players in a game dictated by the libertine monsters. In most cases the victims passively accept whatever outrages are committed, at least until they are targeted individually.
Pasolini allows the victims' hopeless suffering no special sympathy. They readily betray one another in a hopeless search for security. Pasolini consistently frustrates our search for anyone in whom we can invest our emotions, leaving us to view everything from the point of view of the pitiless libertines.
The victims spend much of the movie nude and vulnerable. In Pasolini's previous three "human celebration" films (The Decameron is one) nudity was presented as beautiful and healthy. Salò offers no outlet for our anguish. The pale, trembling victims quiver in numbed shame, and considering what is in store for them, eventually wish they had no bodies to be punished. Pasolini reserves the only gesture of defiance for a proud young man caught having forbidden heterosexual sex. Before he is shot down, he raises his fist in a Communist salute. 1
Each night of humiliation begins with a formal gathering in the salon. Several 'hostesses', aged prostitutes and madams in beautiful hair and gowns, tell stories of sexual depravity. As in the de Sade novel, the libertines speak at length of their philosophy and explain the perverse rules that classify their captives as human garbage suitable only for degradation. Given official approval to dispose of the condemned in any way they please, they entertain their sadistic fantasies as if on a mission of self-discovery, and exult in every vile or disgusting thing their minds can imagine. The movie shows it all happening, albeit with substitutions for bodily excretions and elaborate makeup for the abominable mutilations.
Enforcing the outrages is a small corps of machine-gun toting male guards that double as homosexual partners for the libertines. The guards are swept up in the illogical death wish as well, as seen in the final chapter. Pasolini gives the audience no identification surrogates. Every individual is either a pitiless oppressor or a doomed victim. There's no sense of humor, especially not in the libertine's wretched jokes. The movie is emotionally as cold as ice. It is not by any means sexy, quite the opposite.
Four baleful inter-titles mark the film's major chapters: Antechamber of Hell, The Circle of Obsessions, The Circle of Shit and The Circle of Blood. As each title comes up, I remember feeling a shiver of dread circulate through the audience. After some preliminaries the final act settles into a finale that might be taking place in Hell. Pasolini distills the essence of the infamous Marquis' cruel philosophy. The victims are tied up and staked out in a sandlot outfitted like a Roman torture arena. The 'torture master' is even dressed in a perverse costume, like something out of an ancient epic. There is no apparent audience. The victims are held tight while they're raped and mutilated, and killed with knives, ropes, and hot irons. It's a circus of horrors complete with unbearably realistic makeup effects.
The clincher is that there is an audience. The libertine observers are fifty yards away, watching from behind windows. They use opera glasses to view close-ups of the worst atrocities. At that distance, with loud music playing, they can't hear the cries and screams from the arena. Death is placed at a discreet remove for the comfort of the observer -- like Television with the audio turned down. The victims can't even pretend that someone observing might save them -- they're unaware that they're providing the afternoon's entertainment. This perverse setup reminds of the accusatory horrors of Psycho or Peeping Tom, "civilized" genre movies constructed on sick ideas. Because we also are morbidly curious, because we also want to see, Pasolini implicates us in the Sadean experience. We're locked into the horrible beauty of the images, the faces of the victims in extremis and the leering, horrid faces of the libertines -- and Pasolini gives us no "out." There's nowhere else to turn, no resolution and no escape.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom challenges most of the accepted definitions of public film exhibition. Can a movie so transgressive be a masterpiece as many critics claim? Because most people will see Salò without knowing much about Pasolini or his politics, those championing the film might appear to be elitists that have lost contact with reality -- "suspect intellectuals" trying to pass off excrement as art. Pasolini doesn't fit into that common assumption. One of the film's Fascists says that he hates being associated with idiots generalized as "the people"; Pasolini is known for his understanding and sympathy for peasants and Roman street hustlers. 2
But average "bourgeois" audiences associate content like that in Salò with extreme exploitation fare: pornography, Herschel Gordon Lewis gore pictures, modern Torture Chic horrors. Taboo underground films exist that extol just about every human perversion imaginable, both real and fake. This is an art film by a filmmaker who believes in his theme and chooses clarity over cinematic style. Pasolini wanted an ultimate expression of disgust and despair, and by and large achieved it. Salò is not the kind of movie that will find critical consensus or wide acceptance. Not anywhere.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom appears to be from the same HD transfer source as the 2008 DVD release. The resolution is of course greatly enhanced; on a large monitor the added detail makes the makeup effects scenes even more horrible. Back in 2008 a reader detected a short missing part of a scene that is still missing. 3 Ennio Morricone's music is sparse but sounds good on the clear Italian track (a grating English dub is provided as well). Most of the film's music is played on a piano or heard on a radio.
Disc Producer Kim Hendrickson located and produced featurettes that make a strong case for Salò as great art. Salò Yesterday and Today uses clips of Pasolini and other speakers. Behind The Scenes footage of the shooting shows that the director often operated his own camera. Fade to Black makes a more direct critical case for the film, with Bernardo Bertolucci and others remembering the specifics of its premiere and festival showings under the cloud of the director's untimely death. In The End of Salò the film's stills photographer explains that he recorded Pasolini's atrocities seriously because he was aware of ongoing torture happening in his native South America. Stills of unused scenes show a female victim apparently being electrocuted. Pasolini's unused original scripted ending is presented as well. This last featurette and an especially insightful solo interview with Jean-Pierre Gorin make the best case for Salò as an artist's masterpiece. Designer Dante Ferreti also appears in an informative new interview.
The fat 80-page insert book takes the critical defense of the film even further. Neil Bartlett, Catherine Breillat, Naomi Green, Sam Rohdie and Roberto Chiesi weigh in, with Gary Indiana summarizing the arguments in his BFI tome. Gideon Bachman contributes excerpts from his diary kept on the film's set.
I can't help but think that Criterion's timing for the reissue of an improved Salò was motivated by current outrage over the Bush administration's acceptance of systematic torture as 'no big thing.' There is a direct relationship between our present political realities and this "abominable" film from 1975. 4
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. So Pasolini's reserves a "defiant" moment to single out a naked Communist, whose dying gesture may or may not be futile. Propaganda films have used atrocious visuals almost from the start, as when WW1 dramas showed "Evil Huns" impaling babies on bayonets to stir up hatred against Germany. Dan Rather "dramatized" the conflict in Bosnia by showing a video of Serbs preparing to cut off the head of a captured prisoner -- with a large timber saw. Rather of course showed nothing, but let us know that his privileged eyes had seen the nightmarish finale. And in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a documentary about the evils of the Taliban showed a still of a human face flayed of all skin, staring like Norman Bates' mother. The Taliban do this sort of thing all the time, the docu claimed -- and although none of us ever heard of such mutilation again, we immediately hated and feared the Taliban.
2. One of Pasolini's first film jobs was providing authentic street slang for Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria.
3. During the first wedding ritual the libertines abruptly kick the naked victim-witnesses out of the marriage hall. In the Criterion disc the young people barely settle on the stairs before we cut back to the ceremony. Reader Robert Monell has sent Savant a frame grab from a European DVD that shows a libertine lecturing the victims on the stairs, before locking the doors. In the Criterion version, the speech is not there; the view returns to the inside of the hall to show the libertine locking the stairwell door.
I thought it might have been possible that this is the same kind of encoding error that occurred on another Criterion disc a couple of years ago, where the full scene was on the disc, but with the chapter marks were improperly set so that playback skipped part of the encoded chapter. Evidently this is the entire version of Salò held by MGM, and the longest available for disc. The same sort of "now you see it, now you don't" missing and alternate scene situations occur frequently on the spaghetti westerns produced by Alberto Grimaldi. No two countries seemed to be given the exact same edited versions.
4. Atrocities, sadly, are relative. A make-believe movie about dangerous ideas and repulsive -- but clearly faked -- atrocities is Taboo, but government leaders can blithely dismiss qualms about systematized torture on national television, arguing semantic definitions of water-boarding. A hit TV show made millions popularizing the repulsive falsehood that torture is good and necessary. As for Pasolini's disgusting visuals, don't forget that only a few years ago American public high schools regularly showed traffic safety atrocity films to impressionable teens and children, films full of authentic shock images of screaming accident victims and bloody, mutilated corpses. Disgusting gore horror is apparently acceptable when implemented by Puritans.
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T'was Ever Thus.