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.