If you are seeking out the most notorious, disturbing and controversial films of all time, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom is a title that’s sure to come up over and over again. The film is legendary for its levels of depravity and for being a kind of an endurance test that weeds out all but the most hardened viewers. It’s something that has been on my radar for years and I decided it was finally time to see what all the fuss was about. I wanted to judge for myself if this forty-one-year-old film could in fact still live up to its reputation and hold a candle to modern-day examples of extreme horror like A Serbian Film, Human Centipede 2, Martyrs, etc.
The film itself is an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s notorious novel The 120 Days of Sodom which he wrote while imprisoned in the Bastille in 1785. The film follows the same basic plot structure as the book although the setting is transposed to Italy during the waning days of Mussolini’s reign. The story centers around four rich, powerful men who imprison a group of seventeen teenagers in a mansion and proceed to severely sexually, physically and mentally abuse them over the next four months. The men are aided by a small group of soldiers, who appear to be around the same age as the teens, as well as four experienced prostitutes. The prostitutes fondly regale the men with depraved tales of their own experiences which include molestation, coprophagia (shit eating to you and me) and violence, while the men use the teens to act out their most perverse and grotesque fantasies.
Because of the incredibly debaucherous and disturbing nature of the film, it may be surprising to some viewers that a meticulously remastered edition was released by Criterion Collection, given their propensity for specializing in Art House classics. However, once you actually experience Salo for yourself it is clear that it bears a far greater likeness to the films of European auteurs rather than the Grindhouse cinema of 42nd street. From the gorgeously composed shots to the utterly brilliant, high-caliber acting, it is clear that is an undeniably well-made film that deserves serious consideration.
Content-wise, the film doesn’t quite deliver the kind of visceral gut-punch of, say, A Serbian Film but is nonetheless incredibly disturbing. The fact that the acting is so flawlessly executed makes the actions of the ruthlessly sadistic bourgeoisie villains far more upsetting. Rape, forced coprophagia, torture and numerous other acts, both debauched and bizarre, are inflicted upon the teens for the deviant pleasure of the four men. What’s perhaps even more unsettling is the fact that it is the well-dressed, urbane psychopaths that are the protagonists of the film, rather than the doomed teens. Much like Human Centipede 2, this puts the viewer in the distressing position of following along with these twisted characters rather than seeing them presented as forces of antagonism.
Now, clearly the film adaptation must follow the source material but regardless, it is undeniably light on story and does not adhere to the traditional character arc structure you find in most films. Despite this, the film is very compelling to watch and holds your attention throughout as it builds in intensity. It is also bold in a way that few films are as it presents an experience that is not only incredibly disturbing, and at times disquietingly surreal, but also made with no concern for the film’s commercial appeal. Regardless of how you may view the content, any piece of art that is skillfully crafted, provokes spirited debate, and is genuinely uninhibited is certainly art that is worthy of discussion and analysis.
The film is also rife with subtext and social commentary. This isn’t surprising given that director Pier Paolo Pasolini was, much like the Marquis de Sade himself, an outspoken critic of authoritarian figures and society in general. The fact that the four men who are responsible for the deplorable acts all hold positions of power and authority (such as President, Bishop, etc) is one of the clearest examples of this.
It is also noteworthy that the well-dressed men are exceedingly polite when talking with each other and the veteran prostitutes that work for them but are immediately harsh and cruel when dealing with the captives who they deem to be of lesser value. The scene in which the men take turns enacting horrendous violence on the teens and watching from a throne-like chair with opera glasses is also a clear commentary on both the culpability and voyeuristic apathy of the powerful and the victims of the world they created.
In the hands of a lesser director, a film adaptation of one of the most depraved, grotesque books of all time could have easily been reduced to two hours of cheap shock-value gags but under Pasolini’s skilled direction the film transcends these potential limitations to become a work of uncompromising art. Those seeking a unique and harrowing viewing experience would do well to add Salo to the must-watch list of highly-disturbing alternative cinema.