FEATURING: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto P. Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti
PLOT: Four Italian fascists kidnap dozens of young boys and girls and imprison them in an isolated villa to sexually torture them in bizarre rituals of sadism.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are a lot of words that can be used to describe Salo: disturbing, intense, perverse, depressing, extreme. “Weird” is pretty far down the list. (I did not find any critics who used the word “weird” in discussing Salo). So many of our readers have nominated it for review that I am forced to confess that it may be found lurking somewhere in the outermost penumbra of the weird—but if you want to see a truly weird treatment of the same source material, look at how ended L’Age d’Or with a Surrealist reference to the same novel adapted in Salo. ((Henri Xhonneux and Roland Topor also make far stranger references to the book in their twisted De Sade biopic, Marquis.)) Casting Jesus Christ as Duc de Blangis is less obscene but far more provocative than anything Pasolini could depict in his literal rendition of the book.
COMMENTS: “Although these crimes against humanity are historically accurate, the characters depicted are composites… and the events portrayed, have been condensed into one locality for dramatic purposes… We dedicate this film with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again.”
Salo, The 120 Days of Sodom may seem stranger to someone who comes to the movie with no foreknowledge of the source material, the Marquis De Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom,” than it does to someone who knows the backstory. De Sade, of course, is the 18th century writer whose name inspired the now commonplace words “sadism” and “sadist.” He was an aristocrat devoted to literature, philosophy, and pornography (not in that order), and he produced some genuinely accomplished works. His most powerful books, such as “Philosophy in the Bedroom” and “Justine: the Misfortunes of Virtue,” mix shocking depictions of sexual cruelty with virile intellectual monologues wherein the characters philosophically justify their depravity and smash moralist objections.
“The 120 Days of Sodom” was not one of those books. It was De Sade’s first major work, written while was imprisoned in the Bastille (for a string of crimes including the beating of a prostitute and consensual homosexual sodomy). “Sodom” is an obsessive catalog of perversions, with almost none of the philosophical speeches that would add meaning and value to De Sade’s later work, ((“The 120 Days of Sodom” was unfinished and the ending only sketched, so it is conceivable De Sade would eventually have inserted philosophical reflections later.)) arranged according to a mathematical progression: 30 days of orgies in each set of four escalating perversions, moving from “simple” passions (such as urine drinking) to “murderous” ones. The novel was probably intended for De Sade’s own sexual gratification. The result is the Marquis’s least philosophical and most purely pornographic work.
Prior to Salo, Pasolini had taken advantage of the new sexual freedom of the 1970s to produce erotic versions of three famously naughty works of world literature: The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974). While this trilogy was merely ribald fun, life-affirmingly erotic, Salo would be something else entirely, a 180 degree pivot into nihilism. Obviously, the unique features of “120 Days of Sodom” present a problem for the would-be adapter, even beyond the hurdle of getting it past the censors. De Sade was an intellectually brilliant psychopath who literally believed that the pain of a torture victim is, though psychological alchemy, transformed into the pleasure of the tormentor—and who further believed that the only reason everyone doesn’t acknowledge this obvious truth is because a conspiracy of the weak, using Christianity as their propaganda tool, have conspired to rob the strong of their rightful position as tyrants. What’s terrifying about De Sade is that his intelligence and fierce commitment to this thesis make you wonder, for even the slightest moment, if he might be right. What’s valuable in De Sade is how you decide to disagree with him. But while you can engage in an internal dialogue with him while reading one of his texts, you can’t do that when his philosophy is only executed (pun intended) on screen. ((In his defense, Pasolini does take a couple of speeches from De Sade’s later works, especially “Philosophy in the Bedroom,” and insert them into the narrative here, but not enough to rescue the movie from its wallows in the pornographic end of the De Sade pool.)) Salo shows us all of De Sade’s repulsiveness, but almost none of his seductiveness, and this makes it a far less dangerous and subversive movie than it aspires to be.
Pasolini’s only real alteration of the material, most of which is taken directly from the book, is to set it in Fascist Italy (“Salo” was the name of a town hosting the informal seat of government for Benito Mussolini during the late Fascist period in World War II). Pasolini was a Marxist and a sworn enemy of the Fascists; however, by the time Salo premiered, the political movement had already been discredited for 25 years. The metaphor here hardly seems to add weight or significance to the movie; the literal depiction of forced coprophagia overwhelms even such an unsubtle analogy. Pasolini’s deeper criticisms of the capitalist system aren’t apparent under the oppressive weight of his oversimplistic equivalence of Fascists and sadists (those connections were left for academics to make, but they rely on evidence outside the boundaries of the movie itself). Pasolini’s decision to cast Fascists as De Sade’s revelers was criticized even on the political left. Literary critic Roland Barthes, who was thanked and whose work on Sade was cited in Salo‘s credits, would later write that “Fascism is too serious and too insidious a danger to be treated by simple analogy, the fascist masters coming ‘simply’ to take the place of the libertines” (although he remained a fan of the film overall because it is “bothersome” and “irredeemable”).
But Pasolini’s invocation of fascism does make one wonder if the director was influenced by another movie about Fascists sexually abusing innocent victims: Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S., which jump-started a Nazisploitation cycle in 1974, beating Salo to the screen by a year. The quotation that starts this article comes not from Salo, but from the prelude to Ilsa. One key difference between Ilsa and Salo‘s revelers is that, while the She-Wolf clearly enjoys her work and even indulges in a little recreational sex torture on the side, her perversions are explicitly authorized by the state, and her medical experiments are intended to further the cause of National Socialism. Although fictional, Ilsa does have an actual historical basis—the character is based on real-life war criminal Ilse Koch, “the Witch of Buchenwald.” A critic like Barthes might therefore have defended Ilsa as a more honest attack on Fascism, since it addresses the movement as a real, specific historical phenomenon and sources actual atrocities.
Speaking of atrocities, Ilsa’s résumé would have won the approval of Salo‘s council of libertines: she castrates lovers who fail to satisfy her, injects prisoners with syphilis, orders others to be flogged by topless guards, breeds maggots in prisoners’ wounds, and does some sick stuff, too. In one scene that would have fit perfectly into Salo, Gestapo soldiers feast at a table with a centerpiece composed of a nude woman with a noose around her neck who stands on top of a melting block of ice. After dinner is finished and the corpse has been put away, the Nazi commandant lies on the floor and asks Ilsa to relieve herself on him.
Ilsa is almost universally reviled (when not ignored) by critics, while Salo is generally praised as a masterpiece; but the impulse behind them appears to be largely the same. Only the superior technical aspects—sets, acting, camerawork—set Salo apart. Salo’s major virtue is its courage, its willingness to “go all the way”; but don’t exploitation films always aspire to the same heights (er, lows)? The major distinction critics make between the two films is to presume that Pasolini made his movie with serious artistic intent, while Ilsa‘s producers only hoped to make a quick buck off of salacious material. But it’s far from clear that Salo achieves whatever broader point Pasolini intends (Fascism is bad? Sadism is bad?) Judging from the “customers who bought this also bought” algorithm on Amazon, modern purchasers of Salo are not, by and large, arthouse patrons who pair their purchase with his thoughtful Teorema, but torture porn fans seeking an extreme accompaniment to nauseating fare like Cannibal Holocaust. Now that I’ve become desensitized to shock films, I don’t hate Salo as much as I did when I first saw it. But I do think that it ranks as world cinema’s most overrated masterpiece.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“This film is essential to have seen but impossible to watch: a viewer may find life itself defiled beyond redemption by the simple fact that such things can be shown or even imagined.”–Richard Brody, The New Yorker
(Salo was nominated for review by many readers, the first of whom was future contributor Caleb Moss, who argued that it “contains bizarre, deviant acts of sexuality, strange marriages involving transvestism, a plot structure similar to the Circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno, and strange gatherings where aging hookers tell tales of sexual perversion, all which seems to me a good candidate for the list!” Others disagreed, however, with “Michiel” echoing my own opinion: “it was sickening and the violence was grotesque, yes, but weird? I don’t get that.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).