It’s no stretch to call Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom the grand poobah of disturbing movies. Since its release (or, as some might say, escape) in 1975, Salò has racked up quite the notorious reputation, thanks to its graphic and extremely unsettling content. But unlike Eli Roth, James Wan, or other horror shockmeisters these days, this film goes the extra mile to affect viewers on a thematic level. What you see in Salò is plenty horrifying, but it’s the warped mindset that fuels such sights that’s the scariest idea of all.
This final work by Pier Paolo Pasolini (murdered just months after finishing it) takes place in northern Italy, from 1944 to 1945. For reasons unknown, eighteen Italian youths (nine boys, nine girls) are rounded up one by one and assembled at a spacious country villa. Here, a quartet of upper-class fascists inform the kids that their personal freedoms have gone out the window, that their purpose in life from now on is to bend to their every perverted whim. The men make good on their promise, subjecting the youths to days upon days of unadulterated horror. Young men are sodomized and violated on a regular basis, and the girls are forced to trot around completely naked, 24-7. As the days turn into weeks, the torture only grows more twisted and severe, robbing the kids of any chance whatsoever that they’ll see the outside world ever again.
It’s easy to look upon Salò and brand it as utter filth. The incidents it depicts are absolutely deplorable, demolishing all sorts of cinematic boundaries with the frank and upfront manner with which it views what happens to the kids. This, combined with the image bestowed upon it by the film community at large, might lead you to believe that the film soullessly endeavors to shock for the sake of shocking. However, Salò carries a great deal more thematic depth than that. It’s a satire of the most savage kind, embodying a razor-sharp sense of observation that cuts through the grim atmosphere and rampant depravity. Pasolini’s intent here is to hammer the upper class without mercy, to attack those who believe a little bit of power gives them the right to play God. Though Salò is based on a work by the Marquis de Sade, Pasolini applies the story to a World War II setting in order to spin a tale about the ultimate evil. The fascists, along with the aging women drafted into assisting them, make up a force that cannot be negotiated with, people who don’t ignore the cries of their victims but rather revel in their shared pain. I won’t even begin to describe what goes down, but some scenes will chill the most hardened of cinephiles to their very cores. But considering how viciously Pasolini goes after his targets, it makes sense that his depiction of these characters reach the pinnacle of absurdity.
There’s a scene about halfway through Salò that does a good job of laying down the line. In one of many stories told to the captive kids, a withered socialite (Elsa De Giorgi) relates an anecdote about a man who wished to fulfill his every deranged sexual desire on his deathbed. As the film is set as WWII was winding down to a close, its events are put into perspective, serving as the final ghastly acts of a sect already guilty of committing countless atrocities. It doesn’t excuse or justify the turn of events at all, but it lets you know Pasolini had more in mind than merely testing the audience’s collective gag reflex. Salò is all about mankind at its ugliest, and as such, the overall tone is one of despair and hopelessness. There are no “good guy” figures to focus on, no one to root for as they scramble for a happy ending. You can only watch as these young men and women march towards a fate they’ve all been resigned to since day one. Some might say that this cuts all the suspense from the film, that there’s no point in watching a veritable death sentence being carried out before our very eyes. I’m inclined to agree, since this is one of the few issues I have with the picture (that, and how maybe two of the kids outrightly protest their treatment, which is unlikely given the circumstances).
But in no way is Salò a cut-and-dry experience. I can gripe about how only a select few characters truly react to the horrors inflicted on them, yet at the same time, this says a lot about how Pasolini views the fragile human spirit. Salò is not an all-around great film, but there’s no denying that it does an unforgettable job of saying what it has to say. It’s not to be missed, though I wouldn’t recommend watching it.
Read Chris Luedtke’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom review here.