A heartfelt cry of outrage, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom was conceived by its writer-director, the aging enfant terrible of Italian cinema, Pier Paolo Pasolini, as an act of revenge against twin terrors menacing the modern condition: the stifling wet blanket of consumer capitalism and lingering traces of totalitarianism, still ensconced in positions of authority, both of which he believed were ineluctable, corrosive influences on modern society. Turning his back on the exuberant, earthy sexuality celebrated in his previous three films (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights), collectively known as the “Trilogy of Life,” Pasolini handed down a deadly earnest indictment of unchecked power’s commoditization and manipulation of the human form, yielding what Elaine Scarry dubbed, with terrible simplicity, “the body in pain.”
Pasolini and his uncredited co-writers (among them, future giallo director Pupi Avati) transposed the Marquis de Sade’s notorious 1785 novel to the final days of fascist Italy, where four prominent party members hole up in an isolated estate for one last debauched hurrah, flouting their power over a bevy of unwilling youngsters they’ve procured (read: abducted) and indulging every wicked whim. At the prompting of four wanton storytellers, whose lewd tales function to fan the flames of their impious desires, these would-be demigods subject the boys and girls to a catalogue of depravities. Their little experiment in communal living, complete with constitutional charter and codes of conduct, thumbs its nose at the historical Republic of Salò, to which a faltering Mussolini retreated under the onslaught of Allied forces, just as de Sade’s original novel parodied the Enlightenment ideal of benevolent despotism.
Salò mercifully spares the viewer the full range of De Sade’s combinatorial erotic obsessions. Nevertheless, what’s on display is punishment enough, running the gauntlet from gross displays of urolagnia and coprophagia (crack open that Krafft-Ebing, if your curiosity’s been aroused) to outright torture. In order to offset the quartet’s nauseating activities, Pasolini composes his shots like painterly tableaux, employing long shots and balanced framing (a cinematic Brechtian effect of sorts). Lest the viewer get too comfortable with this vantage point, however, there’s a scene near film’s end that mocks the very notion of distance, as the foursome take turns playing voyeur to the torture and mutilation of their victims in a courtyard below, watching the festivities through binoculars, as though it were some obscene opera. Shot through an intervening window, and entirely without sound, the spectacle is plenty horrible. Want to gain even more distance on these events? Pasolini obliges you: The voyeur flips the binoculars, viewing the proceedings through the wrong end, so that everything’s small and distant and distorted as a funhouse mirror. But for whom, we might well ask, is this funhouse fun?
Every detail of Dante Ferretti’s set design, the marble floors, ornate mirrors, and all-around Deco décor, testifies to aristocratic aesthetic indulgence, in flagrant disregard of official fascist “culture.” In their private quarters, the four men display proscribed artworks, quote forbidden literature and discuss illicit ideas, part and parcel of what Pasolini called the anarchy of power, its refusal to play by its own rules. This contempt for the very conformity that power encourages also accounts for the mock weddings that take place in each of the film’s four parts; matrimony being a sanctified pillar of Italian society, to profane it in increasingly outrageous fashion would be to reject the very foundation of the social contract. This institution suffers the ultimate indignity, in easily the film’s most infamous scene, the excremental wedding feast. Served heaps of shit on silver platters, the young “celebrants” are forced, at gunpoint, to eat up. Whether you take it as a slap in the face to a burgeoning Fast Food Nation, Italian Style, Pasolini’s alleged intention, the scene is scandalous and subversive as any in his films—which, if you’ve even seen Porcile, is saying something.
The story’s overarching four-part structure, though rooted in de Sade’s source material, owes as much to that tour guide of the damned, Dante Alighieri, as it traces an infernal descent into the maelstrom of inhuman passions and collective guilt. In fact, the film’s most troubling, even dangerous, theme explores the widespread conditions of accommodation and collaboration, nowhere more forcefully represented than in the moment when one of the victims, already subject to degradation and witness to murder, gazes lovingly at his executioner. Then, too, there’s the disturbingly ambiguous final scene: Two young collaborators dance a leisurely waltz as, outside the window, the fascist foursome brand, gouge, and scalp their way through the remaining victims before kicking up their heels in an impromptu danse macabre.
Salò’s resonances continue to reverberate. Think: photos from Abu Ghraib, videotaped beheadings, the legacy of dictators around the world, as well as our own “interventions” to make the world safe for democracy, battle demon drugs or wage war on terror. Think: the makers of the reviled torture-porn subgenre, Pasolini’s bastard stepchildren, all too easily dismissed by the same sort of self-appointed tastemakers he hoped to confound with Salò, which, incidentally, makes the ass-to-mouth of The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) look like mere child’s play.
All of which might simply be another way to confirm Pasolini’s most pessimistic assertion, the conflation of personal and political history, past and present. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Criterion’s 1080p Blu-ray transfer, in what they’re promoting as "harrowing high-definition," is no doubt a damn sight clearer and sharper than most viewers will find tolerable, especially in the aforementioned offal scene. Colors are bright and saturated; the color scheme favors warmer hues and downplays the icier tones, a nice balancing act given Pier Paolo Pasolini’s more or less arctic aesthetic. The mono audio conveys Ennio Morricone’s music, as well as the piano pieces and extracts from Carl Orff, quite nicely.
Over two hours of testimony, broken up into three documentaries and two interviews, from individuals involved in the production, including on-set footage of Pasolini discussing the film. Amusingly, this latter footage recurs in the English-language "Fade to Black" documentary, dubbed with a thick, fake Italian accent. Anecdotes and insights abound. My favorite: In a half-hour interview spent unpacking the various literary and philosophical referent points for Salò, Jean-Pierre Gorin suggests the film should be seen every five years or so as a very special kind of palate-cleanser.
A bracing cinematic buzzkill, Salò will wipe that shit-eating grin right off your face.