November Movie Series-Salo or the 120 days of Sodom

November 13, 2008

Salo or the 120 days of Sodom(1975); Dir. Pier Palo Pasolini. Criterion Collection DVD(2008)

Format:Color, Dolby, DVD-Video, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen

Subtitles: English

Rating:

Number of discs: 2

Run Time: 116 minutes

 

 

I have decided to post my review of Salo before I posted the one for Mongol because it was such a disturbing experience that I felt the need to commit to writing my impressions of the film before I moved on to anything else.  Salo is not only notorious for its extremely graphic content and its lack of restraint in showing and speaking about any kind of human depravity that is imaginable but also for the circumstances surrounding the film and the fact that the director, Pier Palo Pasolini, was murdered shortly after completing the film in 1975. I would like to separate the film from some of its notoriety and examine it as a philosophical and social statement.

Salo cannot be viewed in the same fashion that one would view Hostel or any of the Saw movies, where characters are graphically tortured and murdered for the shock value and entertainment of the audience. In those movies, we are supposed to believe that there is some moral compass that has gone horribly off course and we have ended up in a nightmare of torture for torture’s sake. The makers of Saw go so far as to try and convince us that this man murders people who do not appreciate the value of life because he himself is dying and cannot stand people who squander such a precious gift. These are so called “torture porn” films and I also wish to seperate Salo from these films because the purpose and intent of Pasolini was firmly rooted in the history of fascist Italy and the rule of Benito Mussolini. Here, the moral compass has been stomped on and completely discarded.

In this sense the graphic scenes of defecation, urinating into someone’s mouth, anal sex, and the depraved stories told to the group of captives get progressively  worse and worse until they culminate in the brutal scalping, tongue removal, hanging, and burning of the child victims, all play into this philosophy and view of Italy under fascism. What Pasoliniasks us to understand is that the children rounded up by the group of government leaders and imprisoned in a castle where they are subjugated to these acts of brutality is, I think, the way that Mussolini and his government, held Italy captive and both literally and figuratively tortured the country. Each act of violence committed in this film represents a lower and lower level of depravity committed against the minds, bodies, and souls of the Italian people. Taken from the works of the Marquise De Sade, the stories of increasing depravity and violence, I think also illustrate worst aspects of human nature and Pasolini makes it all the more worse but intercutting the violence with scenes of the government officials sitting around for tea, discussing philosophy and their ideas about life. Perhaps the most disturbing scene of the film comes at the end when the government officials are doing a chorus line around the the brutually murdered bodies of the children. It is not whimsical or light hearted in an ironic way, but a revolting dance of death that really highlights the casual disposal of life.

Salo is above all a radical film from a radical and controversial director and to truly understand his films or any of his work, you must understand modern Italian history and the philosophy that Pasolini held as a communist, homosexual, atheist, and anti-fascist. If you are going to sit down and watch Salo then you must also watch The Gospel According To Matthew which is a very personal statement of reinterpreting Jesus Christ as an Italian peasant in a very realistic and stripped down style, or Mamma Roma which is the story of a struggling prostitute. Taking only one of his film such as Salo or even his poetry and novels, and looking at them in an isolated context cannot be done with such a complex director.

As a film, Salo might not be one of Pasolini’s best, but it has such a visceral impact that it has often taken its place at the top of his body of work. While watching the movie it is difficult to remind oneself that you are watching actors portray the monstrous government officials and they are not actually committing these atrocities against the captive children. The violence is pornographic but what is most disturbing is that the camera angles make you feel that you are participating in these atrocities. We are placed as if we are actually sitting in the room where all the children are abused and must listen to the graphic stories of sexual depravity from one of the women and at the end of the film we look through the binoculars with the government officials as the children are being murdered in the courtyard. You have to wonder then if Pasolini’s intent is to implicate us in the atrocities as much as those directly responsible. We, as the audience, must bear the guilt and shame of what was done to these children and by extenstion, what was done to Italy during the rule of fascism and Mussolini. Salo, coincidentally, is the name of the town where the children are captured, and where in real life, a great deal of atrocities were committed by the Mussolini government. While the Criterion Collection copy of Salo is wonderfully remastered and packaged, I am certain that I will never sit down and watch this movie again. But, for those who have never watched the film, it is a work that will challenge you more than most other films can do  and it is undeniably important. But it also demands a lot out of the viewer and I wonder if the notoriety of the film’s violence will always overshadow its purpose.

Charles Jacob; vanheck123@hotmail.com

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