Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini (1975)
A group of Italian fascists kidnap a group of teenagers for use in their hedonistic party of torture and perversion.
CAUTION: THIS MOVIE'S SUBJECT & CONTENT IS EXTREMELY DISTURBING AND/OR BRUTAL. I HAVE CHOSEN NOT TO INCLUDE ANY PICTURES IN THIS REVIEW BECAUSE THEY MAY BE UPSETTING TO SOME READERS. MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS.
I finally watched Salo. I've literally spent years reading about this movie, and about both how everyone should see it at least once, and how nobody should ever watch it. It's supposedly one of the most disturbing movies ever made, and is also supposed to be a piece of cinematic history. Not one to miss, burn all the copies. There really only seem to be two mindsets about this movie, and it intrigued me to the point that I really wanted to make it my first review, even though it doesn't fit the typical definition of horror.
That being said, I, for one, am glad I watched it. It was a beautifully filmed movie, and the points director Pier Paolo Pasolini wanted to make are crystal clear. It condemns fascism, particularly the brand practiced by Mussolini during World War II, but it also engaged the viewer in a voyeur role, watching something that was both obscene and heart-wrenching. It wasn't a train wreck, one where you couldn't look away. It was more of a bizarre piece of art, something that you really have to see to believe. He managed to somehow draw us in, to fascinate us with the scenes that he put together, while also condemning us for watching, and feeling distraught that we can't do anything to help. At least that piece of it was masterfully done. It managed to be artsy and absurd, without being unwatchable or unrealistic.
The influences of the Marquis de Sade were evident all throughout the movie. The movie is, as previously said, set in World War II-era Italy, where a group of rich men and women held a group of teenage boys and girls captive to be their sex slaves. Near the beginning of the film, the rich folk read a list of rules to those invited to the bacchanal. The rule that really set the tone for the film was that while anything at all was allowed, even the most devious sexual acts, the straight-up standard male on female sex was completely disallowed. In fact, anyone seen committing such a "heinous crime" would be immediately put to death. So, essentially, this group of men could do anything at all that they wanted to do to these teenagers, but heterosexual sex was illegal, punishable by death. It was clear at this point, even without foreknowledge of what was to come, that things would not be getting better for our group of captives.
There were many sick and disgusting acts that Pasolini was determined to commit to celluloid, including sodomy (duh, it's in the title), violence, masochism, and even coprophagia. That's eating poop, for those not completely damaged in the head. The legendary banquet of poo scene, where the libertines forced their 18 captives to eat literal shit. Some of the kids were completely disgusted by the act, while some sort of did as they were told without really seeming to be bothered. To be honest, I think that out of everything that was forced upon them in this movie, this would've been something I'd have had a hard time keeping quiet about. Nevertheless, they persevered, as they did through the rest of the movie.
One of the things I've noticed while reading numerous reviews of this movie is that most people keyed on the fact that there were four men who lead the depraved party, as well as several experienced whores who would tell stories to incite their fancies. However, I was more disturbed by the women throughout the movie. Maybe it's the whole "women as serial killers" thing that most in America see as unnatural, but to me, they struck me as the most uncaring of the bunch. I think that when anyone who is depraved, especially sexually, to the point where they enjoyed some of the things these men enjoyed, it's not that far of a reach to see them commit the acts that they did. I would think it rare to find people willing to commit such acts in the general public, so is it really that much of a stretch that they would force people to do these things in their own private villas, away from prying eyes? They themselves were getting the sexual pleasure from the acts, and we all know how far men will sometimes go for sex. But the women? They didn't get anything from these acts, other than maybe the pleasure of their men. They weren't a part of most of the depravity, and most of them weren't even present for a lot of the scenes. But they were picking the girls and boys that they felt would please the men the most, while not achieving anything for themselves. That disturbed me more than most of the other things about this movie.
Now, this movie was disturbing. I don't deny that. But let me get to the beautiful for a few. The ending in the courtyard, while brutal, was quite a scene to behold. As the time in the castle comes to an end, all of the youths, save one that was nominated to join the libertines' guard, are taken into a courtyard where they are tortured and killed by the guards in various messed up ways. From the heights of the castle, their captors watch through binoculars, getting a bird's eye view of the happenings below. The scene didn't leave much to the imagination, though of course there are much harder scenes in modern horror cinema. But the enjoyment these men received from just watching, while music played in the background, and several of their guards just sat around talking... it was a perfect commentary on the fascist rape of Europe during that time. The men whose bidding was done, the men who ran the whole show, sat and watched from a distance as the final, most horrific acts were done to their subjects. You could draw a parallel between the leaders of the Axis powers and these men, getting their jollies from the pain and suffering of others.
Finally, when all was done, two of the guards danced a waltz, oblivious to the suffering in the courtyard, and then the movie was over. And that was that. The utter finality of these final scenes, leaving us with a bleak "evil over good" ending, was my favorite part of the movie. There was no uplifting final scene where the bad guys got what was coming to them. There was no final flight, where the virgin runs through the woods away from the masked killer chomping at her heals, finally finding redemption and freedom as the bad guy is vanquished. No, the bad guys completely and utterly won. They destroyed their victims, and they were left standing at the end, to either return to their lives outside of the castle or to gather another round of victims. And their guards, young men not much older than those who had been held captive, lived life, and were seemingly unaffected by what had gone on in the previous two hours. Out of all of the shocking scenes, this was what affected me the most: Pasolini's nihilistic view of how the world really is.
Pasolini asked that we learn from the past, that we never allow these things to come to pass again. Since then, we've had many dictators, many fascist regimes, many genocidal maniacs running rampant throughout the world, but nothing to the extent that we saw during the 1940's. So maybe we did learn our lesson. Maybe we did see the error that Pasolini seemed to desperately want to show us.
Or maybe not.
Who this movie is for: Old movie fans, Extreme horror lovers, Nihilists
Bottom line: One of the premier anti-fascist movies ever made, Salo is a beautiful film with a powerful social message. Pasolini is a master of disturbing film, and he makes his masterpiece with Salo. Absolutely recommended, this is a film that everyone should watch. Maybe just the once for most of you, though.