Criterion // 1976 // 116 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 21st, 2011
The final vision of a controversial filmmaker.
"It is when I see others degraded that I rejoice knowing it is better to be me than the scum of the people."
In 1944, four powerful Italian men join forces and commence a ritual of cruelty. They have kidnapped eighteen young men and women and imprisoned them within a lavish palace in the Republic of Salo. Over the course of the next few months, these teenagers will be subjected to an ever-increasing series of horrors.
I had purposefully avoided checking out Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom for years, despite the fact that I had admired other Pasolini films and have a reasonably strong stomach when it comes to extreme cinema. I just couldn't work up the nerve/desire to dig into Salo; it sounded like a gallery of horrors I could tolerate living without. As such, I cringed just a little when I saw this new Blu-ray release turn up in my mailbox. Is Salo the repulsive, disgusting experience it's been accused of being, or is it a great (albeit brutal) work of art? Both, to some degree.
The film's structure is diabolically simple: every day, the captured teenagers gather in "the orgy room" and are told a supposedly erotic story. In the midst of this, their captors will be inspired to either A) take one of the captives off and rape them or B) suggest some kind of dreadful group activity. This routine is repeated over and over again, with the stories growing a little nastier each time and the responses of the four men equally so. Humiliation and rape are only the beginning; such "mundane" horrors seem positively tolerable in contrast to the events that follow.
The events of the film are divided into four chapters inspired by Dante's Inferno: The Anteinferno, The Circle of Manais, The Circle of Shit, and the Circle of Blood. There are many ugly sights scattered throughout these chapters (particularly the last two), some of which will prove incredibly difficult to shake. Honestly, I'm having some difficulty writing this review, as considering the film requires me to recall things I would rather forget. Indeed, that's a large part of Pasolini's intent: to force viewers to consider things which would ordinarily be repressed. We all "know" that humanity is capable of great evil, but prefer not to meditate on the most horrible things some members of the human race do to others. Pasolini plunges our faces into an increasingly nauseating portrait of pure evil for two hours. One essay in Criterion's booklet ponders whether the greatness of a film should be measured by that film's unforgettably. I would say no, but if that were indeed the criteria, Salo would be one of the greatest films ever made.
Salo is one of the very few films to actually make me feel physically ill -- the "Circle of Shit" chapter (featuring seemingly endless scenes of feces consumption) had me dry-heaving at a couple of points -- but it isn't a film I can angrily dismiss as pornographic trash. While the Marquis de Sade unquestionably derived pleasure from some of the horrors he described, Pasolini's updating of the material (which smartly moves the events into the 20th Century as a reminder of the fact that some things never change) looks on these events with a detached, helpless sense of rage. There's no satisfying resolution, no suggestions of a way to stop this madness. Almost everything good is either crushed or infected with evil; even the touching closing scene seems like little more than a brief flicker of hope from a flame which is about to be extinguished. This isn't torture porn designed to give you a cathartic jolt or deliver sick thrills; it fills you with numbing sadness and dismay (even so, some have inevitably treated Salo as an entertainingly "extreme" viewing experience, which is saddening in its own way).
So is it a good film? I don't know. It's "good" on a technical level, as the performances are chillingly persuasive, the direction is effective and the technical virtues are considerable (including an eerily warm score courtesy of Ennio Morricone). The film is never dull or empty-headed. Its portrait of the four men (who seem driven less by insatiable lust than increasingly unconquerable impotence and boredom) is one of the most strikingly effective examinations of "the banality of evil" I've ever seen: this is torture as imagined by bureaucrats. Still, I can't say that I feel I'm better off for having endured it. I don't think it's given me a greater appreciation for how ugly humanity can be. It did provide some insight into what Pasolini was capable of, but I'm not sure it was worth it. I'm somewhat admiring of it in the most cautious of ways, but I never want to see it again. The film persuaded me of the notion that it deserves to exist, but I'm still not quite sold on the notion that it needs to be seen.
Salo arrives on Blu-ray sporting a solid 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. The film looks very much like a product of its era, suffering from some of the dingy softness which afflicts many '70s films. Still, the picture is just about as sharp, clean and clear as it can be under the circumstances, though there will undoubtedly be moments when viewers will wish for vastly hazier picture quality. Shadow delineation is impressive and blacks are satisfactorily deep. Audio is solid, with crisp dialogue completely free of hissing or crackling. Morricone's unsettling soundscape is sharply conveyed as well. Supplements are highlighted by three thoughtful, informative documentaries which serve as valuable viewing aids: "Salo Yesterday and Today" (34 minutes, featuring archival interviews with Pasolini), "Fade to Black" (24 minutes, featuring interviews with Pasolini admirers/fellow provocateurs Catherine Breillat and Bernardo Bertolucci) and "The End of Salo" (40 minutes, featuring interviews with numerous cast and crew members). You also get a 12-minute interview with production designer Dante Ferretti, a 28-minute interview with scholar Jean-Pierre Gorin, a trailer and a thick booklet featuring numerous essays from critics and filmmakers.
The points Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom makes are undeniably potent: if power corrupts, then unchecked power will inevitably descend into unquenchable evil. It may not be the most extreme film in terms of the graphic content it puts onscreen (indeed, In the Realm of the Senses is far more graphic in its depiction of sexuality, Ichi the Killer goes further in terms of violence, and Pink Flamingos goes further in terms of, uh, fecal meals), but the extremities are considerably more nauseating in this case given that they're harnessed to a mindset of relentless depravity. Proceed with caution if you proceed at all.
If you need me, I'll be in Judges' chambers nursing a large bottle of whiskey.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Not Rated