Salo: 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Rating: N/A

Dir: Pier Paolo Pasolin
Star: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti

[1] Set in the last days of Mussolini’s reign, this film has got into a lot of trouble for its sadistic imagery – the full version is still banned in Britain [it remained that way until 2000] – even in truncated form it still remains a very nasty film. The story is negligible. Four Fascists, including a Duke and a priest, kidnap a number of teenage boys and girls – the next ninety minutes is a graphic depiction of the humiliation of these victims. This includes their sodomy, mutilation and also their being forced, literally, to eat shit. This is not a Disney film.

So what possible justification could there be for this exhibition of atrocities? “Fascism, symbolised here by the total subjugation of the sexual victims, is merely the ultimate expression of a tendency latent (and to Pasolini inherent) in every power system which depends, as all power systems do, on the submission of the many to the few” — David Wilson. Er, what was that again? Oh, I get it – the Fascists in the film are doing to their victims literally, what Pasolini thinks they did to Italy. This film is taking the Italian equivalent of ‘The Conservatives are screwing the country’ to it’s logical extreme.

Ok, it may be a metaphor, now is it an effective one? I don’t think so. The film makes its point in the first half an hour; what follows is pure sledge-hammer cinema, slamming the subject’s head off a wall for an hour and a half. This tactic should only be used when absolutely necessary and the idea you are trying to put across is one so alien to the audience that no other way is possible. For example, in Nekromantik, the director’s ideas on sex & death are so weird that anything less than the torrent of body fluids and corpses would just bounce off the average viewer’s moral barricades – these need to be broken down to get the message across. The message in Salo is no more controversial than ‘The Italian Fascists did some bad things’, which most people would agree with, and is surely not sufficient reason to produce a film where one of the ‘highlights’ is a meal of steaming turds.

What makes the film especially unpleasant is the absence of any sort of justice. At the end, the torture continues unabated and there is no reason to believe the torturers will eventually be punished for their crimes, even in a Dirty Harry way, or that there will ever be any escape for the victims, except through death. The viewer doesn’t get the relief of knowing that crime i.e. torture doesn’t pay. But overall, I can’t help thinking there are far better ways of putting the point across. If the Fascists were as evil as the voice-over at the start claims, then a straight portrayal of their behaviour would have had a greater impact on me than a story written by an 18th century pervert. As it is, the images remain disgustingly striking, but the message of the film is diluted severely by the irrelevance of the story and the generally gratuitous nature of most of the scenes.