Criterion // 1976 // 116 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 26th, 2008
The final vision of a controversial filmmaker.
For those of you who've never heard of Salò, run now: some things cannot be unseen.
For everyone else, I'll provide a little refresher. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom was the last film of controversial artist Pier Paolo Pasolini. The film had already garnered controversy for its depravity when the director was murdered. Banned in a number of places, Salò made its way around the world via clandestine and art-house screenings. It captured new attention when Criterion received a limited license to release the film on the then-new DVD format. The film went out of print quickly. This fact, combined with its already notorious nature, caused its price to skyrocket on Internet auction sites. In fact, I suspect that most casual film fans have only ever heard of Salò because of the ridiculously high price it was fetching online. But now it's ten years later, and Criterion has re-released Pasolini's final film with vastly improved picture and supplements. It's still as depraved as it was thirty years ago, but also just as interesting.
Based on the works of the Marquis de Sade, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom moves the Marquis' story from eighteenth century France to Italy at the end of World War II. The film is set in the region of Salò as the final battles of the war are being waged elsewhere. Four gentlemen (the Duke, the Magistrate, the Bishop, and the President) decide to sequester themselves in a chateau to act out a series of grisly rituals on some of the local youths. These four men attempt to set up an alternate society with new rules (like no defecating without permission), which will delight their libertine senses.
Being a Marxist artist is difficult, especially a Marxist filmmaker. If you create works that large parts of the population enjoy, then you're contributing to the distraction of the people from the problems caused by upper-class oppression. If, however, you make a work that is uncompromisingly difficult, which doesn't simply placate the masses, then you run the risk of losing money. If you lose money, you don't get to be a filmmaker for long. Pier Paolo Pasolini found himself at such a crossroads in his filmmaking career. He had helmed his successful "Trilogy of Life" films, but their popularity made him wonder if he was only reinforcing the status quo instead of challenging it. With his next project, Salò, he set out to ensure that there would be no chance that his film could be used to comfort the people. Watching the film now, it's difficult to understand how long a shadow fascism cast on Italy. Salò could therefore re-establish Pasolini's dedication to political cinema by condemning the fascist elements present in his government.
Generally, this is the easiest way to talk about Salò: history and context. Censorship and murder make excellent review copy. However, fewer reviews address the visceral experience of watching Salò unfold. Because of its (in)famous nature, it's easy to build Salò up as the ultimate "sick" film experience, demonstrating the limits of human depravity. Allow me to pop that bubble. There are more gag-worthy films (think Divine in Pink Flamingos; at least the kids in Salò were eating chocolate), and there are more squirm-inducing films (I Spit on Your Grave comes to mind).
However, Salò does have something going for it. I'm reminded of Cronenberg's Videodrome, when the main character is warned away from a show because "It has a philosophy. And that's what makes it dangerous." Salò is very similar. Other films have better gore, more violence, even greater depravity, but Salò has a philosophy. Every moment of every shot stands as an indictment of fascism. The film is relentless, continually reiterating its points in scene after scene which contrasts depravity with austerity, philosophy with fornication. That is why Salò is still remembered. Not because of the cross-dressing, or the feces-eating, but because every frame is bursting at the seams with something to tell the audience.
Unsurprisingly, Criterion's two-disc release screams quality. Both discs are housed in a folding cardboard tray that fits (along with the usual essay book) into a beautiful outer sleeve. The booklet includes six different essays by various scholars and commentators, as well as a series of journal entries about Salò by a friend of Pasolini's.
As for the film itself, it is gorgeous. Those who have (or saw) the original Criterion DVD may well recall the sickly green cast to the film, as well as its smeary look. The Region 2 BFI disc was a slight upgrade, but it still looked soft. This new disc opens up Salò in a way that is sometimes more shocking than the film's content. Pasolini had a fine arts background, and this new transfer shows the attention he paid to color and composition while filming Salò. This transfer also frees the film from the "exploitation" look the film had with the old Criterion disc. Now it looks like a film that would be shown at an art house instead of a grindhouse. The mono audio is fine for what it is. Italian films are often filmed without sound and dubbed later; Salò is not exception. So, the voices sound a little off here and there, but that's not Criterion's fault.
In addition to the aforementioned essay, Criterion treats us to a number of documentaries on Pasolini and his last film. "Salò: Yesterday and Today" contains an abundance of contemporary footage of Pasolini, as well as input from actors and friends. "Fade to Black" contains interviews with directors and scholars discussing the impact of Pasolini's films, while "The End of Salò" covers the film's production. We also get interviews with the famous Dante Ferretti and scholar/director Jean-Pierre Gorin. All of these extras provide more context for the film, showing it as more than a disgusting and depraved piece of trash cinema.
Obviously the film is full of all kinds of objectionable situations. If you don't like to see people engaging in sex, feces-eating, cross-dressing, masturbation, etc., then Salò is not for you.
It's also entirely possible to be turned off of Salò's message by the sheer absurdity of the film. It is so over the top, so intense, that it becomes almost farcical.
Finally, consumers should be aware that the Criterion and BFI prints differ by a 25-second scene. IMDb lists at least two different cuts of the film (one a premiere, the other the released cut), so it is difficult to know, absolutely, whose cut is "definitive." If you want to see all of Salò that you can, then the BFI release may be for you.
On of the most fascinating (and frustrating) aspects of reading the Marquis de Sade is that he wanted to be read, but not loved. From what we know, he preferred passionate denunciation to blind acceptance of his writings and ideas. I suspect that Pier Paolo Pasolini felt similarly. Salò is a provocative film in the best possible sense of the word; as our senses are provoked by the depravity of the scenes, our minds are provoked by the philosophy behind them.
By now you know if Salò is the kind of movie you should see. If you decide you have to see the film then this Criterion edition is the way to do it. If, however, you're on the fence (or have a weak stomach), then I recommend checking out the second disc to get a better sense of what you may (or may not) be missing.
Salò is far from innocent, but as a film it stands not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2008 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Theatrical Trailer
* "Salò: Yesterday and Today"
* "Fade to Black"
* "The End of Salò"
* Interview with Production Designer Dante Ferretti
* Interview with Director and Film Scholar Jean-Pierre Gorin