Why 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.
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.
Salò 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.)
The 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.)
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.
Of 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.