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Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom: Criterion Collection
Pier Paolo Pasolini did not die for his art, but he may have been murdered because of it. His latest film, Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom was about to be released. On November 2, 1975, his badly battered body was discovered on the beach near Ostia, outside Rome. A young hustler was accused of running over the famed director several times with his own car. When he later retracted his confession, the case was left unsolved. It remains a tragic end to an enigmatic figure, a man who more than any other in his medium lived the messages in his movies. Making the situation all the more suspect, Pasolini would leave behind his most controversial, inaccessible, and condemned work, a film that even today insights passionate discussions and powerful reactions. Based on a famed work by the Marquis de Sade and set during the latter days of World War II, the director hoped his statement against consumerism and fascism would spark dialogue and change among an already brainwashed society. Instead, it's become a lightning rod for censorship, hyperbole, and all manner of misinterpretation. Now, after a long exile in high priced out of print DVD exile, Criterion has given contemporary audiences a chance to break through the legend to see the truth behind Pasolini's purpose.
In the Northern Italian city of Saló, four high ranking government officials - The Duke, The Bishop, The Magistrate, and The President - get shotgun married to each others daughters, and then head out into the countryside to round up random teenagers. Their goal? Take these children of noted radicals, subversives, and intellectuals to a local estate, strip them of their modesty, and perform all manner of unnatural acts on their innocent, nubile bodies. Together with a group of four former prostitutes and/or madams, the men will listen to nauseating tales of molestation and pedophilia while indulging in similarly degrading acts of rape, abuse, shit-eating, and individual humiliation. Divided into circles, just like Dante's Divine Comedy, the events will play out in horrific, hermetically sealed squalor, the men making jest of every facet of human decency and propriety. And even more disgusting, some of their supposed victims will eagerly play along.
In some ways, it's better to begin this review by commenting on what Pier Paolo Pasolini's Saló is not. It is not the most horrific or grotesque movie ever made. Certainly, the revolting elements used by the filmmaker to fashion his "power = corruption" rants are truly disturbing, but they are often buffered by an aesthetic detachment that's so remote it leaves their impact suppressed. Similarly, this is not a complicated cinematic screed. From the moment we witness the forced marriage of the libertines' daughters to said madmen in charge, we realize that Pasolini is offering a very obvious allegory. By moving de Sade into the 20th century, and using Mussolini and his complicit populace as metaphors, the notion of authoritarianism as an ugly aphrodisiac for all manner of debauched behavior is crystal clear. Finally, it is not child pornography. Granted, the sight of several underage actors posing in various stages of undress (including copious full frontal nudity) will be alarming to our post-millennial PC posturing, but again, this director doesn't sensationalize sex. Instead, it is handled in such an impartial, almost inert manner that only the most psychologically disturbed pervert would find this film enticing.
Indeed, Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom is one of the most uncomfortable experiences you will have with an arguably classic film. It will play out in slow, deliberate steps, as talky as it is tasteless in its ideas and illustration of same. In a rare example of an artist putting his beliefs where his box office lies, Pasolini takes aim at a viewership drunk on his previous "Trilogy of Life" (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights) and condemns them for enjoying his counterculture takes on sensuality and lust. He then decides that the rest of society needs censure as well. By taking on what he perceives as the new, post-modern fascism - the notion of personal happiness achievable via consumption and the amassing of goods and material possessions - Pasolini lets no one off the hook. He is especially hard on those who play the victim. Throughout Saló, we see adolescents greedily partaking in the vices, enjoying aberrant sex, rape, random acts of violence, and mindless hedonistic indulgence. One of the reasons viewers will find this film offensive is not in its images. While intense, the concept of complicity is far more disgusting.
In fact, the main theme of Saló is that the corruption of power cannot be achieved without the willingness of the people to allow and foster it. This makes the movie a timely piece, no matter the political era. But it goes much deeper than this. Pasolini proposes that the two are so inexplicably intertwined that it's impossible to have one without the other. Take the libertines. They want to indulge their repugnant whims, and they use the children of local revolutionaries, intellectuals, and free-thinkers (the natural enemies of fascism) as their prey. During the minimal dialogue that doesn't involved acts of foul fetishism, we discover that most of the parents put up little or no fight. One child mourns a mother that drowned herself trying to stop her abduction. Pasolini plays the scene as if to condemn the crying girl. Along with the prostitutes/madams (taken directly from de Sade) who provide a insidious running commentary on their underage exploits and molestations, we become awash in a nonstop barrage of human iniquity, behavior and discussions of same. They are so unconscionable as to shake the very foundation of our morality. Movies are rarely this provocative - or painful in the process.
It can be said that much of Saló plays like Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game without the latter's likable French farce elements, monochrome luxuriance, and lighthearted hand. The noted 1939 masterpiece offered a similar message - the bourgeoisie gave the Nazis a clear path into Western Europe via their privileged passivity - but fancied it up within a comedy of manners paradigm. Pasolini wants no such pleasantries. He's out to drive a stake into the very heart of his country's complacency, and doesn't care if it destroys his career in the process. Like most provocateurs, he was a director who didn't gauge his effectiveness via popularity or commerciality. Instead, Pasolini believed (foolishly or not) that he could change things via his art. He saw the power of cinema as being a visual representation of the unexplainable, a heightened understanding of that which mere words found difficult to convey. This is clearly the case with Saló or the 120 Days of Sodom. Granted, its message and method are so clear as to be exhaustive. True, the film will try your patience with its mannered, meticulous pacing. And let's make one thing perfectly clear - once the final shot has faded, you may hate this film and yourself for indulging in its dehumanizing scenarios. But it's also impossible to shake, a movie that makes itself at home in your ethos. No matter the format, that's the sign of something timeless.
After spending what seems like forever in overpriced eBay Hell, it's wonderful that Criterion has pursued the rights issues involved with Saló. By cleaning them up, it allows fans not flush with seemingly unlimited disposable income to own a copy of this complicated classic. Since this critic does not have access to previous prints of this title, he can only base his opinion on online comparisons. What's clear, aside from issues involving a missing 25 second scene and some questions about combing in between chapter stops, is that this version of the film looks fantastic. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is crisp and clean, with bright colors and natural lighting radiance throughout. Pasolini made it very clear that he worked within the limits and strictures of his found locations, and the dilapidated manor employed for this film is rendered in striking contrasts. As with any older film, there will be issues involving the source and the technology employed, but for something as rare as Saló, this transfer is terrific.
There are two ways to enjoy the audio portion of Saló, though oddly enough, neither are the 'official' way Pasolini intended the film to be heard. Seeing both the source material and situations as decidedly French in nature, the director commissioned such a language dub. He did not live to oversee it (friend and collaborator Jean-Claude Biette handled the task). Still, Criterion opts to give us only a clear Dolby Digital Mono Italian track and an odd Dolby Digital English version. In both cases, the sonics are a little awkward, since Pasolini typically shot his movies without synced sound, laying in dialogue and music/foley in post-production. Thankfully, the subtitles are well placed and easy to read.
Perhaps the most important improvement over the previous Criterion release of Saló is an entire second DVD devoted to added content. Disc 1 only offers a trailer. On the second disc, we are treated to three documentaries as well as two interviews with production designer Dante Ferretti and film scholar and maker Jean-Pierre Gorin. All five bonus features are essential viewing, providing the kind of context and insight a film like this mandates. After watching Pasolini on the set (as part of the "Saló, Yesterday and Today" featurette) or hearing director John Maybury discuss the film's gay themes, we instantly look at the film in a totally different light. There is lots of background information here, with Pasolini ever-present to defend his decisions and his artistic ambitions. From his use of non-actors to the details of his death, these extras really do supplement the viewing experience. And when you toss in the 80 page booklet loaded with essays and excerpts from Gideon Bachmann's onset diary, you've got a fine, far more definitive reissue.
Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom stands as a clear contradiction in terms. On the one hand, it's an amazingly controlled and complex experience, one that succeeds in crawling under your skin and soiling your soul. What we witness here is not necessarily the worst of man, but what we all assume humanity is like when control turns corrupt. But there are still issues with the movie, aside from its cruelness and unemotional disengagement, the biggest being Pasolini dated notion of art actually influencing and changing life. Today, Saló exists as a product of its time and of its angry creator. It's also notorious as a glorified geek show challenge. For everything it offers outside such limits, however, it easily earns a Highly Recommended rating. If you longed to experience this film without giving up hundreds of your otherwise spoken for dollars, then now is the time to strike. Just be warned - you may not even come close to enjoying (or understanding...or sympathizing with) the experience.
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