The day before I watched this movie, I saw Buñuel and Dalí’s surrealist classic L’Age d’Or. The last scene of that film is “120 Days of Depraved Acts”, a nod to the Marquis de Sade’s novel, The 120 Days of Sodom. This seemed like an omen, a message saying it was finally time to take on Pasolini’s infamous last film. There are stories of people who bought copies of Salò and never got around to opening them, much less watching them. Its reputation most certainly precedes it. The “parents guide” on the IMDB can be quoted at length here, although I suppose some odd spoilerphobe will want to skip these:
Several young men and women are raped, tortured, and sodomized…. A woman eats a piece of cake with small razor blades in it [they looked like nails to me] … A woman tells stories of torture with a big smile on her face (she recounts one story where a woman has a rat sewn into her vagina; the storyteller laughed about this quite a bit)…. A young man has his penis burnt with a candle … A young man's tongue is cut off … A woman is scalped with a knife … A person's eye is cut off with a knife.
And that’s just under the category for “Violence & Gore”. There is a long list of items under “Sex & Nudity” that can be summarized in the first paragraph: “Every sexual act imaginable is shown or talked about (graphically) at one time or another … acts include sodomy, homosexuality, coprophilia, transvestism, S&M, rape, and masturbation.”
And if that’s not enough for you, in one scene, “Everybody eats human feces at a dinner event, some are smiling and loving it while others are disgusted.”
So, why would anyone want to watch this movie? Well, Pasolini is a highly-regarded director, and this was his last film. The movie is beautifully made (which only makes the disgusting parts more disturbing). And, for better or worse, Pasolini has a point to make … Salò isn’t just a catalog of depravity.
First, there’s the historical context. Pasolini moves the setting from the 18th-century France of the novel to Italy in 1944-5, when Mussolini had fallen and the Fascists had at least temporarily lost power. Briefly, four rich and powerful men abduct a group of people, take them to a palace, and do whatever they want to them. Pasolini is showing the way power corrupts, that Fascism is an evil philosophy, that we as an audience are implicated. The philosophy aspect is not just tossed in … the credits offer an “essential bibliography” that includes Barthes, Blanchot, de Beauvoir and others, and during the film, as the Fascists sit around planning their next debauchery, they talk of Nietzsche and Ezra Pound.
It’s all too much, but then, it’s supposed to be. Pasolini won’t let us hide … even covering our eyes isn’t enough (and it’s useless anyway when the vileness comes from the tales aging prostitutes tell about their past encounters). It’s not exactly that there is no hope. Rather, it’s that there is no end in sight, and when the movie finishes, there is no sign that anything will be different during the next 120 days.
It says something about society today that Salò isn’t quite as startling as it was in 1975. I don’t think even Pasolini could imagine The Human Centipede trilogy. But Salò still makes us retch, because it’s not just about the scenes of people being forced to eat shit. It’s about social structures that allow these kinds of psychopaths to be in positions of power.
So, I hear you wondering, is Salò any good? If you’ve gotten this far, you deserve an answer. Remarkably, it gets boring at times. I’m not convinced that Pasolini makes all of the many points he is after. And while I understand the artistic impulse that says to show the evil in Fascism, you have to show it at its most extreme, the fact is most people will never see Salò because of its extreme nature. #186 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.