Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom

Movie Information

Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, May 16, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.
Score:

Genre: Literary Sex Drama Allegory
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini (Teorema)
Starring: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto P. Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti
Rated: NR

I had passively avoided Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last film (he was murdered shortly after it was made) Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) for years. I didn’t go out of my way not to see it, though a copy of it sat on my desk for months and I never got to it. It’s not that I was afraid to tackle a movie that’s been called the most disgusting and disturbing film ever made, I just wasn’t all that interested. Now, I’ve been forced into seeing it—and I took three other souls into Pasolini’s hell with me. They may forgive me in time. Salo is everything you may have heard and more. It’s not merely disgusting and disturbing, there’s a sense of pure evil clinging to the film like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I do not believe this is unintentional, nor do I believe it is pointless.

Pasolini took the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom and moved it to Salo, the town that served as the seat of government in Italy in the final days of World War II. There, a collection of four depraved men—The Duke, The Bishop, The Magistrate, The President—have gathered a group of presumably innocent young men and women with the intention of sexual indulgence, humiliation, torture and ultimately murder. Every imaginable and unimaginable perversity and debasement comes into play and is shown unflinchingly. The almost porno-film graininess, rudimentary lighting and dodgy focus only add to the discomfort. It’s the sort of truly repellent movie Eli Roth likes to think he’s making, but wouldn’t dare.

There really is no other plot: just the parade of depravity with the sounds of the war getting nearer and nearer. It’s wearing, depressing—occasionally blackly funny (the scene where everyone is shown ready to betray everyone else to save his or her own hide, for example)—and yes, powerful. It does have a point—not just about the ultimate descent into something worse than the corruption of the fascist government, but as an indictment of the people who refused to see what was happening. One scene nails this. When the film cuts from the increasingly frenzied tortures to the pianist (Sonia Saviange)—who has been playing accompaniment (with her back turned) to the horrors, playing deliberately loudly to drown out the sounds from the courtyard—suddenly she stops; realizing her own complicity, she trudges upstairs to her own self-made fate. It’s chilling because it’s directed at us, but it’s nothing compared to the bleakness of the ending.

Am I recommending the film? Not exactly. It’s certainly an important work, but I don’t think it’s essential. I do, sadly, think it may be more relevant today than it was in 1975. But it certainly requires a very strong stomach—I cannot overstate that. This is nasty stuff. Put it this way: I won’t be watching it again.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

19 thoughts on “Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom

  1. Dionysis

    Like you, I had thought about watching this film for a long time, but just couldn’t quite make myself do so (primarily due to the sordid nature of the film itself). Reading this review does nothing to dispel that reluctance. I really don’t discern any compelling reason to subject myself to such grim imagery, other than to say ‘I saw it’. Interestingly, this film was put out on DVD on the superior Criterion label, is now out-of-print and is fetching pretty big bucks (at least $100 a pop, if you can find it). Go figure.

  2. Chip Kaufmann

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. If ever the essence of evil were captured on film, it is here. I’m an admirer of Pasolini’s movies especially his “trilogy of life” (ARABIAN NIGHTS, THE CANTERBURY TALES, THE DECAMERON – all literary adaptations as is SALO) but the fact that this is torture porn with something to say is why it’s so profoundly disturbing. As you said it’s an important film and a powerful film but I for one wish that it had never been made.

  3. “Interestingly, this film was put out on DVD on the superior Criterion label, is now out-of-print and is fetching pretty big bucks (at least $100 a pop, if you can find it). Go figure.”

    Word is that Criterion will be putting it back out.

    I wonder whose copy they are showing?

  4. Ken Hanke

    The copy they’re showing is in essence somebody’s cast-off. My guess is that the movie is kind of the cinematic equivalent of that Christmas fruitcake that keeps getting passed around as a gift because nobody really wants it.

    Myself, I’m glad (in a sense) to have seen it at last, not so much to say I’ve seen it, but because I would otherwise have always wondered if it was really as nasty as I’d heard. Now I know. And, yes, it is.

  5. Whoever is putting this on has beat me to the punch.
    I wanted a triple bill of SALO, THE SWEET MOVIE and THE BEAST. I still have former friends that won’t talk to me after I showed them THE SWEET MOVIE.

  6. Dionysis

    “I still have former friends that won’t talk to me after I showed them THE SWEET MOVIE.”

    I’d never heard of this film, but just checked out IMDB’s comments. After reading them, I can well understand your “former friends” reaction. Yuck.

  7. Ken Hanke

    I still have former friends that won’t talk to me after I showed them THE SWEET MOVIE.

    I’ve seen it. I understand why they might have followed this path.

  8. “I’d never heard of this film, but just checked out IMDB’s comments. After reading them, I can well understand your “former friends” reaction. Yuck.”

    It also has been lovingly restored by Criterion.

    I do miss the devil-may-care attitude of 70s filmmaking. It seemed that directors back then didn’t mind if their balls were on the chopping block. There were lower budgets, no multiplexes and zero focus groups. The only film that comes close to that in years I think is SOUTHLAND TALES.

  9. Ken Hanke

    I do miss the devil-may-care attitude of 70s filmmaking. It seemed that directors back then didn’t mind if their balls were on the chopping block. There were lower budgets, no multiplexes and zero focus groups.

    You’ll get no argument from me about the 70s being a more adventurous time in filmmaking, but it’s a bit of a stretch — no, it’s a lot of a stretch to suggest that Sweet Movie and Salo have much, if any, relationship to anything approaching mainstream film or that they had an effect on the public at large. I mean, I was around then and I would’ve never even heard of these movies had I not been reading Film Comment and going to university film showings. (University showings were the very heart of movie viewing existence in those dear dead pre-VCR days.)

    Also, by 1972-74 multiplexes were very much in evidence. Unfortunately, these were mostly of that God-awful shoebox design with the aisle down the middle. Still, at the time we thought they were pretty swell. I remember spending a large chunk of the day at the AMC six-plex in Tampa with a friend where we saw Young Frankenstein (opening day), Blazing Saddles (still playing) and Animal Crackers (re-released in ’74 after the rights were finally cleared up).

    You’re certainly right about no focus groups, though.

    Of course, it was the era when the director was the superstar and had as much or more marquee value as the star. (I have a theory as to why this all came about, but I’ll leave that alone right now.)

    What was truly remarkable was that movies like The Magic Christian, The Music Lovers, A Clockwork Orange, Last Tango in Paris, Amarcord, The Devils, The Ruling Class, Che? (or What? or Diary of Forbidden Dreams, depending on what version you saw), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and, yes, even Lisztomania were being put out by major studios (or the occasional upstart) and were actually being shown in multiplexes. But things like Salo and especially Sweet Movie were always fringe items.

  10. Fringe or not Ken, there’s no way these films could be made now. No one would ever put up the money.

    I’m sure multiplexes were just waiting for JAWS and STAR WARS to be made.

    Criterion just announced a re-release of SALO for August!

  11. Ken Hanke

    Fringe or not Ken, there’s no way these films could be made now. No one would ever put up the money.

    I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing. I don’t honestly think the world was enriched by either of these films, but I’m also not sure that I believe you’re right. It might not find a release, but I don’t for a moment believe something like this couldn’t get made. I’m just not impressed by this kind of film. You want to impress me? You get a film like The Devils made and into theaters now and then you’ll impress me. Hell, get me another Naked Lunch into theaters.

    I’m sure multiplexes were just waiting for JAWS and STAR WARS to be made.

    Whether they were or not, that’s what happened. But the multiplex did not kill the “art” film.

  12. Ken Hanke

    So who went to this? I want to know audience reactions!

    You and me both. Carlos is supposed to let me know how many came and how many were left by the end. Perhaps he’ll post the info here.

  13. Ken Hanke

    You don’t suppose the viewers turned mean and ran over Carlos with their cars, do you? I mean, we have heard nothing about the outcome of this screening…

  14. Ken Hanke

    Finally heard from Carlos — small turnout, but only one walk-out and those who stayed discussed the film afterwards. He also got calls from a couple people who wanted to see the movie, but didn’t want to do so publicly, which is interesting.

    The one walk-out kind of amuses me. It’s hard to believe whoever it was had no idea what they were getting into. But this is an inevitable occurence, I guess. At the 2005 film festival, we ran Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion at 12:30 a.m. The write-up in the programme stressed that this was the version that the MPAA was going to slap an X rating on. Both the film’s writer, Barry Sandler, and I spoke before the movie. There should have been no surprises here. All the same, two young women walked out in an outraged huff about 10 minutes into the movie.

  15. I’m trying to remember the festival, but one in Philly showed the grindhouse piece of poo HOUSE AT THE EDGE OF THE PARK. As predicted, many people stomped out but had to email the show’s promoters, who gleefully put the exchanges up on the internet. I’ll see if I can find a link, they’re pretty funny.

  16. Remi

    I finally bought the new criterion edition of Salo (The one with the essay booklet) for 50$.

    Watched it.

    Yes. It IS that hard.

    But somehow, I’m so happy to have my copy.
    I’m a huge fan of 70s alternative italian cinema, including stuff like Joe d’Amato’s works. And Salo has a special place in my room now.

    Some of my friends tols me they wanted to see it after I talked them of Salo, I’m still unsure if it’s a good idea to let them watch this. They are not into alternative film making like I am…

  17. Kai Squires

    It is sick and brutal and it’s true that most people probably wouldn’t want to sit through it but “Salo” is also a beautiful film and it’s extremeley relevant and I belive an essential film for those who can stomach it. Yes the violence and depravity are unflinching but yet they are not overly exploitative, (I have seen more graphic films than this)it is instead the message of the film, its historical aspect and the artfulness of the whole affair that elevate it and give such a haunting resonance and make it seem far more graphic then it really is. It’s not ‘torture porn’ its an ingeniously harsh film about the horror of complacency and corruption that doesn’t pull any punches.

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