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Review: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Directed by: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Premise: An adaptation of Marquis de Sade’s unfinished novel. Set near the end of Italy’s fascist era, four government officials abduct a group of young people and subject them to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.

What Works: Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom was an unfinished novel that was designed to be a systematic catalog of perversions with clerics and aristocrats masterminding the abuse of their captives with the guidance of prostitutes. Filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini used Sade’s concept and applied it to fascist Italy; the town of Salò was essentially Italy’s capital during the fascist era and the nobles in this case are politicians. Pasolini’s Salò is a political film and the tortures and indignities are staged through that lens. The filmmakers create their own mini fascist state within the confines of the mansion where most of the movie plays out. What’s dramatized is the total domination of the individual by the elite. The young victims’ behavior, speech, and even their bodily functions are policed by the officials and their enforcers. The rules are essentially impossible to follow and that’s by design. The ultimate goal of the fascists is not obedience but destruction. This understanding informs the whole film. Despite how grotesque Salò can be, the movie is actually restrained in its execution. The violence is staged in deliberate ways that sometimes block out the most extreme actions. That’s especially the case in the ending in which the destruction of the victims is seen in a subjective angle through field glasses. The cinematic choices and the stories told by the prostitutes turn Salò self-reflexive. It’s a movie about power and domination but it’s also about stories and the way pornography and libertinism, even in its most excessive form, can become dull and repetitive.

What Doesn’t: Like many of the most disturbing films, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is not pleasurable to watch. If it were, the moviemakers would fail in their aims and so it’s not fair to critique Salò on that front. It’s also a film that’s rather repetitive but again that’s part of the point. Viewers who come to Salò expecting the kind of inventive bloodbath that they would experience in Hostel or Saw aren’t going to find that here. As is sometimes the case in political pictures, the people are largely caricatures. We don’t get to know anyone—perpetrators or victims—in a meaningful way. They are mostly interchangeable. As a result, everyone and everything that happens to them remains on a symbolic level. There’s no chance of the violence having an emotional impact beyond revulsion although it does possess an intellectual meaning which seems to have been Pasolini’s aim.

Disc extras: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray includes documentaries, featurettes, interviews, a booklet, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is an endurance test of a movie. The violence is extreme but it exists within a purposeful context and is therefore not gratuitous. Salò is not intended to appease the gore audience. If anything, it questions what violence in entertainment and in the culture tells us about ourselves.

Episode: #967 (October 1, 2023)