Tuesday, December 17, 2013
The film is based on The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade, with the setting updated to World War II fascist Italy. Four prominent men (a banker, a bishop, a judge and a president) arrange to have eighteen young people (nine male and nine female) abducted and held in a remote chateau, where they are tortured over several weeks. The prisoners are raped, led around on leashes, force-fed shit, branded and mutilated. Between humiliation sessions, they are forced to listen to the almost comically shocking stories told by old prostitutes about further depravities. The prisoners do not escape. The four masterminds are not brought to justice. The film ends with the implication that these atrocities will simply go on.
Director Palo Pasolini had a lot to say about the symbolism throughout this film and, I suppose, a case can be made for its artistic merit. But the film is also disgusting on both a physical and emotional level. With these sorts of films, it’s always difficult to tell if the director is attempting to associate this disgust with some social evil (wartime atrocities and the excesses of fascism) or simply creating an exploitation piece. It’s also difficult to tell if the attempt is successful or if the film becomes so disgusting that any socially redeeming message is lost between scenes of rape and murder.
It really all depends on why you want to watch disturbing films in the first place. If you’re simply looking for celluloid endurance tests, Salo will be the kind of challenge you’re seeking. If you’re looking for a film that explores the darker side of human nature, you should find something here as well. But it’s not a party film or a date movie or one of those “so over-the-top-it’s-funny” kind of stories. It’s a shocking film whose bleakness has rarely been approached since its release over thirty years ago. The Criterion Collection has recently re-released this film on DVD, so you have a chance to see for yourself. Proceed with caution.