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'Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom' Review: Pier Paolo Pasolini vs. Fascism

Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom, Pier Paolo PasoliniWhy is it that bad artists always try to justify their garbage by claiming to be experimental, political, or any other label that does not pertain to the quality of the artwork itself? Well, it's simple – they cannot justify it in any other way. Naturally, when the film or novel or painting has been banned in many places, it only allows the puerile artist to stroke himself more. But since that's the only reason such art exists – witness all the art made from or with bodily excretions and/or simply used to evoke outrage by lowest common-denominator means – the base reaction sought is easily achieved. Of course, astute art lovers and critics easily see through such crap, while a few dilettantes do not. Yet, the latter are the ones who seem to always be quoted.

With that in mind, I recently watched Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 celluloid vomit, Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma / Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom – a horrid movie not because of its sadomasochism and every imaginable sexual perversion, but because it is a poorly directed, visually anomic, ineptly scripted, badly acted, poorly scored mess that lacks humor, depth, and any iota of quality.

Even so, none of these elements are its worst sins. The cardinal sin of Salò is not that it's disturbing, but that it is dull. I mean D.U.L.L. If I have not made my point sufficiently, let me try to convey the extent of my incessant yawning spasms while watching it: D (now open your mouth as if the cock of a virgin Italian boy was all you desired). U (imagine you are cutting off the pink of a young maiden's nipple, just so that a gush of blood will stain your mouth like a vampire's first sating). L (imagine having to stretch, just to stay awake, and then being delighted as a perverse old Neapolitan stiffs you from behind with his semi-flaccid rod). L (as you wipe your semen-stained mouth with satiety and uncork – literally – a shit-eating grin). Now, imagine repeating this exercise in persuasion – oh, about 1,200 times – and you will have gotten what I had to endure while watching this travesty.

As a critic of conscience, I supposed I owe you a bit more on this hardened piece of coprolite-in-waiting. Salò is reputedly based upon the Marquis de Sade's book Les Cent vingt journées de Sodome / The 120 Days of Sodom, published over two centuries ago. De Sade, naturally, was the first of these talentless hacks who indulged in writings that, like Pasolini's film, is not even mediocre pornography.

Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pasolini, also, was a writer – in fact, he was a notoriously bad poet (not unlike fellow charlatan poet-filmmaker Jean Cocteau). Included in EuroCult's hideous DVD – with bleached light, drained colors, and much-too-dark shadows – is a foreword by Pasolini (read by an untalented actor), in which the schlockmeister tries to justify Salò by first stating that he did not change a word from de Sade's text (as if that's an excuse), and then by making a specious connection between the film's homosexual antagonists and their sexual sadism, and that of the Fascists of Italy and the Nazis of Germany – even though both groups routinely persecuted gays and sexual deviants; in other words, the “reality” portrayed in the film would never have been tolerated at the time. Also, the psychological comparison between the sexual sadism of a cult of fetishists and Nazism's nationalistic Hitler worship is patently false – it's like comparing milk that went bad because of deliberate chemical curdling with milk that someone accidentally left out for three days.

Here is a brief synopsis: Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom is set in 1944 in the Republic of Salò, a Nazi puppet state in northern Italy that was formed after the country was invaded by the Allies. It was so named because its capital city was Salò, a town located midway between Milan and Verona. This very fact makes it laughable the claim that there was any historical basis for the film, as the Nazis not only hated gays, but distrusted the Fascists as weak for they failed to hold up their end of the Axis. Also, despite the fact that the Republic was a Nazi puppet state, not a single swastika is seen in the film.

Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom by Pier Paolo PasoliniSalò is formally divided into four sections: Antinferno, Circle of Manias, Circle of Shit, and the Circle of Blood. The film opens as four aging bisexual roués plot to abduct eighteen teens of perfect physical means (nine boys, nine girls) in order to take them to an isolated hideaway, and sexually abuse and torture them under a set of laws of their own choosing. Those are arbitrary and subject to change at a whim. Disobedience is punishable with death – or worse.

The four sickos are a local duke, bishop, magistrate, and president, all of whom are otherwise nameless. After taking their prey, the second act begins and the old bastards hire four haggard old prostitutes to regale them with arousing stories to whet their appetites for sexual mayhem. Naturally, not a single tale is erotic or even remotely interesting. They consist of narrative bursts like: “When I was an eight-year-old prostitute, a dying man wanted me to show him my arse. As I bent over his deathbed, he asked me to shit on his face. I did. The end.” Those tales are followed by the old perverts running off with a victim and either humiliating them or begging to be humiliated.

As days go on, the tortures increases. By the third act, shit fetishism takes over as all are forced to eat each other's shit. Reputedly, Pasolini concocted his cinematic feces of chocolate pudding and raspberry marmalade. (This factoid is often foisted on a reader to allay them that no real coprophagy occurred in the film.)

Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom by Pier Paolo PasoliniThe final act sees bloodletting take hold, as those who violated the arbitrary rules are tortured and killed, including one of the hired men, who is finked on by one of the prisoners for fucking the African servant girl. Perhaps the only mildly interesting element in Salò is how some of the prisoners turn on each other by revealing their “crimes,” such as hiding photographs and practicing acts of lesbianism. The rest of the violators are tortured by flame, eye gouging, nipple branding, scalping, tongue cutting, and penis burning. This is all seen from afar by the four old men, watching the tortures through field glasses.

Let me now add that not a single thing in Salò – whose only grace note is that it clocks in at “only” one hour and 55 minutes – is well wrought. Even taking into consideration the poor DVD transfer, frequent Pasolini collaborator Tonino Delli Colli's camera work is shoddy, static, and often out of focus. There are gratuitous close-ups, lots of pointless framing, and poor color and lighting. The acting is amateurish and stiff – some of the performers seem to enjoy the actual filming as a lark, others are dead earnest, while others seem to be hardly aware that they are acting.

Compounding matters, Pasolini and Sergio Citti's writing is disgraceful – at times stilted, at other times inane, but always dull. There are no Plan 9 from Outer Space or (Rainer Werner Fassbinder's) Whity “so bad it's good” moments in this swill. And even the renowned Ennio Morricone's score is so mundane that I can barely recall a note of it.

As to be expected, Salò has legions of defenders. Here is one of the most absurd things that have been said about the film:

“An author once said that it is the function of the artist to hold a mirror up to society, but that it's not the fault of the artist if society doesn't like what it sees. Such is that case with Salò.”

Well, that is true, but beside the point since neither Italian nor contemporary European or American society consists of the sexual degradation of individuals in an autocratic state that has no parallel to its internal cinematic times nor any metaphoric relevance to societies since. It is merely another in a long line of works of art and art movements masked as social or political fodder so that the artist's own personal and creative shortcomings are not addressed.

Two more claims, this time from detractors and both of which I feel are false, are often made about Salò:

  • The film goes far overboard in its display of disgusting and offensive behavior
  • The film ultimately becomes the very evil it despises

The second claim implies that Salò becomes fascist. However, it is important to note that while the film is depicting the birth, life, and death of a fascist system, it does not attempt to control or overpower the viewer through propaganda or any other means. In fact, Salò is neither fascist nor a critique of fascism.

Real criticism involves depth and the deployment of contrast, metaphors, and other tools. For instance, in the real world, Fascism crept up on the people through bit-by-bit means until it was too late to stand against it. Pasolini's film depicts a debauched system in power from the very start, without trying to explain how – much less why – it came to be.

Now, my main gripe against Salò is that it's tedious and banal. Those same charges cannot be levied against 1970s sexual exploitation, blaxploitation, porno films, or efforts such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Faces of Death, Last House on the Left, or I Spit on Your Grave. Whatever the failings of those genres and films, none of them contains the major flaws found in Pasolini's film – even though they (and many recent videogame-inspired Hollywood productions) outdo Salò's violence and sex. (In truth, I did not cringe once while watching Salò; I merely laughed to think that Pasolini could ever believe his snuff film had anything to say.)

Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Indeed, Salò is so un-artistic and over-the-top that the only way it could even remotely work would be if it was treated as a Monty Python comedy. As an aside, it also begs the question as to why it is that all forms of supposed “reality” we see – on television or film – are only of the lowliest sort, based on degradation rather than on the overwhelming majority of “reality” that revolves around life's banality, dullness, and utter indifference.

Overall, Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom feels like an Andy Warhol Factory production with pointless perversions tossed in. So why watch it? The only possible reason would be so that a young filmmaker could see exactly what not to do. Perhaps the only real positive I could say about Salò – or rather, about the Eurocult DVD, which has no bonus features – is that it does come with golden subtitles. That said, even that minor positive is abated by the fact that the subtitles are filled with grammatical and spelling errors.

Pier Paolo PasoliniOf course, one of the reasons the film's “reputation” – such as it is, has endured – is because of the death of Pasolini shortly after Salò's premiere, murdered by a 17-year-old repulsed by the director's sexual advances. Some have claimed that the murder was politically motivated, but given the utter lack of intellectual depth of his last film and his body of poetry, that would be akin to the proverbial “using a sledgehammer to kill a flea.” The murder has, however, kept Pasolini and Salò on the fringes of cinematic consciousness. In fact, in 2006, Time Out rated Salò the most controversial film ever made.

Salò has also played to the stereotypes that defenders of Lowest Common Denominator Hollywood garbage point to as bad highbrow Eurotrash cinema, claiming that “their stuff is just as shitty as our stuff, but at least we admit it.” And the verity of this in regards to Salò is one of the reasons that so many people laugh at real art. But when one posits this sort of garbage as art, it's even more difficult to argue against the trash the Steven Spielbergs and Ron Howards release.

Worse yet, Salò is not good porno, which often displays wit and bits of real eros, or an interesting exploitation film. In fact, it's merely a much-faded imitation of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange – the film that Pasolini wanted Salò to be – but without having to exert Kubrick's artistic effort. The result is a film that tries to elicit disgust, though, years later, it can barely manage a yawn. Pasolini's error, of course, was in thinking that the essence of art is something emotional rather than an intellectual connection. Just fart in a church and see the types of look you get – mere “reaction” is quite easy to accomplish.

Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom is not worth a dime or a minute of your time. Rent an old porno film, instead. Perhaps a classic from the Ron Jeremy library. Ah, emotion!

Editor's Note: At the time of his death, Pier Paolo Pasolini was reportedly doing research on the mafia for a planned documentary. He had also received death threats from neo-Fascist groups following the release of Salò. He had made even more enemies after attacking the Italian government for corruption and for having ties to organized crime. Geoff Andrews has a thorough article on Pasolini's murder in Open Democracy.

© Dan Schneider

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.

Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma / Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Dir.: Pier Paolo Pasolini. Scr.: Pier Paolo Pasolini and Sergio Citti; inspired by the Marquis de Sade's book. Cast: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti, Caterina Boratto, Elsa De Giorgi, Hélène Surgère, Sergio Fascetti, Bruno Musso, Antonio Orlando.


         
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16 Comments to 'Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom' Review: Pier Paolo Pasolini vs. Fascism

  1. LaEva

    Dan's comment makes you realize how many people (first of all Dan) are still afraid and obsessed about this movie. Why?
    Next time, Dan, at least read a history book to know what the Salo Republic was (it's clear from the comment that you do not know what it was).

  2. Anonymous

    Finally, a reviewer with a brain. Mr Schneider, I agree with every word. Anyone who thinks this movie is “a great work of art” should get their heads examined.

  3. TheLunarNote

    ….And as far as the author's review, I can only come to 3 conclusions.

    1) He's never seen any of Pasolini's other films
    2) Has a layman's understanding of Neo-realism
    and
    3) Was looking for something to spank off to in a corner whilst watching.

    If he'd seen any of Pasolini's other films he would have realized that most all of his films are very slow paced. From Accattone on, all his films sorta just crank on through. Which brings me to my second conclusion. All of his films, with the exception of Mama Roma, Teorema and Medea, are acted by non-actors. Which is why he acting seems ham-fisted in parts. And as far as “Decent Pornography” goes, SALO was never ment to be a porno movie. In fact it's an ANTI-PORNO movie. Sex in not used for titillation. It's there to show that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Which is what the basis of the film is.

    You say, also, that the “REALITY” of the film doesn't parallel the “REALITY” of the society in which it intends to mirror. I beg to differ. Apparently the goings on at Abu Ghraib don't mirror that at all.

    You also claim that the Nazi would have never indulged in or approved of the homosexuality displayed in the film because they persecuted homosexuals. Again, I beg to differ. Look at the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl. They contain more than a few homo-erotic sequences. And again to mirror today's society…The Republican Party, to some extent, persecutes the homosexual community and yet many of them get caught indulging in homosexual activities.

    As far as Pasolini's body of work. You're either going to like or hate it, there's no in-between.

    But to claim it has no artistic merit is going overboard.

  4. TheLunarNote

    Luck….Pasolini's adaptation of De Sade's book is strictly his own. Yes, he borrows heavily from it, but he also leaves a lot out. Especially most of the brutal violence from the book. As with most of Pasolini's adaptations (Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights, Et Al) he takes a lot of creative license.

    To claim it owes more to De Sade than Pasolini is a misrepresentation of the film in my opinion.

  5. Stuart

    I found Salo to be a very disturbing & vulgar but also something I couldn't turn off. It is far more impressive than the usual slasher remakes that Holloywood thinks are nasty. Salo is a masterpiece that actually hasn't got the respect and fan fare it deserves. Only 1 other film I've seen has upset me as much as Salo and that's August Underground's Mordum. Forgien films and low budget unknown films are far more impressive & shocking than the crap Hollywood poop's out.

  6. luck

    Is this film art? Not really.it has no plot and no good acting.actors and actresses are second or third class and furthermore the victims even are not actor.if we call this as art then we must call fetish porn,torture porn,gore movies etc. as art but this is not the point.
    Is this a thought proviking film?well,if you have a little brain, yes.for a well educated,intelligent and sophisticated person this is just a piece of cake.any metaphor in it?kind of and very obvious,explicit.art must be suggested and makes us think.repetitive tortures are very explicit and that's why it has such a reputation.
    To be able to understand this film we must look de sade,because this film belongs to de sade rather than pasolini.it is adapted almost literary from his book.so who is de sade?for this we again must his writings and real life.no doubt only a sick and pervert man could write these kind of stuff.de sade is nothing for literature and philosophy.he had a simple,childish philosophy that is stolen from rousseau.rape and murder are not a crime according to him.he had only one purpose in his like.to live as much as free and freedom means to him that being able to rape,torture and mutiliate children,women and little girls.in his real life he did these many times and he was imprisoned several times for this.his writings reflect his real life.his childish philosophy is just a cover and an excuse for his crimes.to him women and children are just bodies,flesh and holes from where he could get sexual pleasure through raping,torturing and humiliating them.he saw them as an object and thought whatever he wanted to do them.
    So how a monster,pervert,aristocrat can critic fascism?he,himself was a kind of fascist.though this he was very honest.in his writings there was no metaphory and allegory.he reflected his real life experiences and sick,disgusting fantasies.nothing less nothing much.
    Coming back to film,one can derive everything out of it depending the way he/she thinks and this is possibly for almost every film included banal porns.in salo there is a weak fascism criticism.to wear a nazi uniform,to call them fascist and to let them torture children not a fascism criticism.there are some fetish-torture porns which do same like stalin.no intellectual depth at all.if you really want to watch a powerful fascism criticism then i advise you Fassbinder.
    Do not be ignorant and try to see the real nature of this film by looking further.

  7. Random Critic

    Wow … art or not, it certainly got you all worked up, didn't it, Dan? Hmm… I wonder if that was what Pasolini and/or de Sade were going for? If so, they each scored a solid victory over you, didn't they?

    But of course, your personal wisdom is obviously greater than the collected wisdom of Literary History, and your witty little review will certainly be remembered as a Great Work of Art.

    Oh wait, no, no it won't … it will languish in obscurity on the internet, while the artistic creations that you unloaded your spleen on will continue to shape and influence society, as they have for decades and centuries respectively. Your drab little article will be forgotten, while the very works of art that you tried to blast will continue to be appreciated by people who actually ARE astute critics and art lovers, long beyond your death.

    How sad for you.

  8. AC

    Also, a “notoriously bad poet”? Is this a joke?! His literature has played a crucial role in establishing him as Italy's foremost post-war intellectual, a place which he rightly deserves.
    These reviews, however, should be notorious for their lack of insight.

  9. AC

    This is an absolutely terrible review of a brilliant film… I wouldn't have written anything if this had not been the second time mr. schneider has been completely and utterly off the mark about a work of art. I frankly cannot believe you're still writing reviews… perhaps YOU'RE missing something, but a good proportion of the world isn't. To say ANY work of Pasolini's lacks intellectual depth is basically an admission of your own ignorance.

  10. Karlo

    Interesting diatribe.

    It seems that the point of much 'art' (good or bad) is about the resulting discussion and conversation about it. This film has generated an innumerable amount of such discussions.

    By the way, some great essays have been written in conjunction with the Criterion re-release of the film, and I entreat you all to review them. The writer above could gain a lot of perspective by reading what others have thought of the film, its impact on the industry, and the obvious political fallout resulting.

    Disgusting, vile, even pornographic… Sure. Things that “are not supposed to be seen”. Things that “should never happen”. The director supposes that in the historical context of Fascism they did. He dramatized them (as is his prerogative), and we are still talking about it! There is passion in that. There is honesty in that. It may not (and obviously it hasn't) affected you in that manner, but for a great deal it has.

    Slow-paced? Look at just about any other 1970's film. LOL! by today's standards, they were all slow! Ha! The late 20th century “sound-bite-MTV-cut-click-flash of ADHD directing styles has obviously made you forget the historical context of film-making in question!

    Look, dude, the film is worth discussion, and for that I thank you. But your calling it “vomit” begs a retraction. They said that about many other great artists in every realm. Mozart's music was “dissonant” to his contemporaries. Edvard Munch depicted the art of a “sick mind” and “disrespected the art or painting”. I'm not calling Salo the work of genius, but it certainly seems like the act of one. Time is certainly trying to tell us something…

  11. Marli

    I found Nick stealing the words I was about to type. Damn you. And I would like to add that if anyone did not find this movie offensive in the slightest then you do not get the message! Why is it so hard to watch something that truly grabs at yours nerves, and patience but we in the 21st century make films about serial killers and we pay to watch it? What is so hard to watch? The fact that it is true and deep down inside you felt that?

    You know as a woman, I watched The Accused and have not been able to watch it since then. It made me angry! I swore, and any man within a yard of me heard very classy-like words coming out of my mouth. It obviously moved me, and eventhough I was offended to watch a womans body be unwillingly taken advantage of, it spoke volumes.

    We live in such a desensitized world now that I almost fine it amusing that anyone found this hard to watch! This movie was supposed to scare you and anger you. If it doesn't, then no one can help you! haha

  12. Baraa Oxygen

    Salo' is the only film (in whole the history of pictures) which talked seriously about the deep relation between power and perversion. I'd like to invite the critic above to follow hollywood, since only that would meet his cinematographic and cultural level.

  13. lenny

    yeah, the message is that eating poop and killing people is only scary if your a good director.

  14. What IS the message of the film?

  15. think

    Personally, i MUST add my thoughts. I agree with both of you, that there are two sides of each coin. But i think that the “message” should have been shown less intensely, rather make you think about this horror than make you disgusted or something. This stuff really recalled that strange bad feeling what i have when i think of ww2 and all of its terror.
    I really think that if it was supposed to be an art movie, it should have been more impressive, with tiny shings that make you shiver inside instead of making you need to throw up. I guess that was a way to express the horrific spin in the head of all this stuff and give it intensity, but this way, i'm completely on the side of Schneider, it is boring and doesn't make you want to think about deeper meanings, which, i think, this film has, but makes you so horrified that you don't even want to think about it.

  16. nick frost

    I read your patrinising review after seeing Salo for the first time this evening. I was so struck by its relevancy today. The message of the film is timeless - just as the final scene of the film warns us how the film's horrors will be passed down the generations. I suspect you are so caught up in your won clecer demolition of the film that you blinded yourself to the film's message. Sure you can hone in on the film's inadequacies in filming and lighting and some of the acting - although I thought there were several superb performances - but you should not ignore the powerful and universal messages. The film is still terrible and disturbing in the twenty first century. I am sure its message contributed to the director's death. Of course I did not enjoy the film this evening but I was totally caught up in its message. Perhaps you might look again without the claever tinted glasses.