Written and directed by: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Starring: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle & Aldo Valleti
Reviewed by: Brett H.
“We fascists are the only true anarchists.”
As the holy grail of horror on DVD, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom’s story in the present is just as controversial as it was upon release. Released by Criterion in 1998, rights issues emerged that resulted in the film being pulled from shelves and left those who purchased it off the bat with quite the little collectible on their hands. With Ebay prices fetching well into the hundreds, it seemed like only a matter of time before it would finally see the wide and uncensored release so many filmmakers, including the likes of Martin Scorcese, had hoped for. It took a decade, but Criterion finally re-released the great abomination to a hungry audience in an expansive and anamorphic two-disc edition. Does the film live up to its reputation, or is it more reminiscent of what’s left in a diaper after a baby does its business? Normally that kind of scatological humor is reserved for times of writer’s block, but when in Salò…
Nearing the end of World War II, four powerful Italian fascists kidnap 18 young men and women with the help of some machine gun wielding accomplices. Upon arrival at the palace, the men and women are instructed of the rules of the establishment, which are very different than those of average 1944 society. They are not to reference God and are not to engage in any straight sex and the punishments are stiff to say the least. The coming days will be absolute hell for these poor souls as they are degraded sexually in the worst ways the mind can imagine. Divided into four parts, Antechamber of Hell, Circle of Obsessions, Circle of Shit and Circle of Blood, the prisoners of Salò are treated as animals by despicable creatures that can’t even be called humans and each quadrant of torture is exactly what is described in the titles. Remember those unused vomit bags you got at a late-night drive-in showing of Mark of the Devil as a promotional gimmick in the 70s? Take them out if you got ‘em, they’re finally going to get some use…
Salò is everything its reputation suggests; defiant, despicable and deplorable. Pull out your thesaurus and look up the word sick, only then can you represent the horrors of those 120 Days with justice. The film has merit, no doubt well more than the average, but to get to it the viewer must endure an overwhelming obstacle course of taboos and travesties from the mind of the Marquis De Sade. If you want to break things down to a primal level, Salò is to sexual horror what Cannibal Holocaust is to violence; an epic of antipathy that revels in its own disgust to reveal the truths about ourselves and how we allow things to happen, even if we aren’t committing the crimes. But, we’ll get to that soon enough, this is the part of the review where I list all the obscenities and we determine whether or not you and I will continue to chat about the movie or you’ll close your browser and head for a shower. Constant rape, golden showers, shit eating, whippings, ass-worship, murder and everything in between. All of this brought to us by the fine people at Criterion!
The shocking thing is I actually kind of enjoyed the flick, perhaps as much as one can like a movie of this nature, but I wasn't really shocked by the displays of sexual travesties. That's not to say some aspects never made me make a disgusted face or ten, but when you begin dealing with subjects such as erotic scat tales that are told without obscenities, you’re bound to expel a few chuckles. Amidst the nauseating blizzard of revolt is the thought that anything can or probably will happen next. The fascists in the film encourage homosexual acts (anything else amongst the commoners results in the loss of a limb as punishment) and have no problem with their buddies going to town on them while they pillage the bodies of the lower classed innocents. Nudity has always been a staple of horror films and there’s absolutely no shortage of it here, but you never really notice it in the normal sense. They are naked because the fascists want them to be and them being incessantly objectified sexually is a repulsion accomplished so strongly throughout that you just sit there wishing they could put clothes on.
The real meat of the film (besides Long Dong Silver near the end after a round of man on man action) is the fact that it puts the viewer, reluctantly, into the seat of the abusers in the film. How? Other than one girl, we don't really know anything about the people being tortured and this proves to be one of the more uneasy traits Salò has to offer. The film portrays the people as animals or bodies without a soul and the tormentors are portrayed exactly the same way, except juxtaposed with the characteristics of evil instead of innocence. As a viewer, you want the people to escape, but the personal hope that you'd feel in a rape/torture flick like Night Train Murders as a result of characterization isn't there, so in that realm it's completely different. It's sort of like the train wreck that kills a hundred people in a distant country; you're sorry that it happened, but if it happened in the town over (even still with total strangers), you'd be exponentially more emotional over it. Toying with these interpretations was actually rather thought provoking while watching a film with such a grim outlook.
Social commentary is abundant in the film, with Pasolini diving into the terrors of fascism and the upper class feasting on the less fortunate. When the film touches on the relationship between the victims and the possessors (harking back to WWII concentration camps, perhaps), it creates a much more disgusting example of people turning on one another than anything Romero (and the windshields he calls glasses) has ever accomplished. Again, the most effective and sickening things occur between the lines when a chosen victim becomes one of the controllers and fakes machine-gunfire at those he once was in the same boat with. People aren't born mean, but those nurtured in the dementia of Salò are taken to a place almost beyond evil. I suppose after witnessing such disheartening acts of, well, everything, that the subtleties disturb me the most is a true testament to the vision and work of the late Pasolini, who was tragically murdered around the time of the film’s original theatrical release.
Criterion’s double disc DVD is nothing short of spectacular. A slight stir has been brought up in the DVD community involving the omission of a 25 second poem in the Criterion version of the film that is present on other copies, but I highly doubt it would have any effect on the film whatsoever. The Italian audio is presented in mono and sounds truly exceptional for such a track and the anamorphic 1.85:1 video is equally as stunning, with few imperfections and little grain. Pasolini’s direction is subtle (don’t expect many close-ups of the travesties, the viewer is usually distanced from the proceedings), but wonderful and the transfer is well worthy of displaying his talents. For those who enjoy dubbed tracks, Criterion includes the English dub as well. The supplements on the disc are explosive, including a whopping 70 page booklet featuring essays and anecdotes on the film, a trailer and three different documentaries totalling 90 minutes of Salò and Pasolini information. If that’s not enough, there are also interviews. There’s a massive wealth of information to be had here, and it without a doubt will be considered one of the top horror packages ever to fans. I don’t know if Salò is necessarily the most disgusting film of all time, or if it has to be, but the treatment it has been given by Criterion is splendid and makes the package all that much more enticing… not that you’ll have much fun watching it. Rent it!
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