In any list of the most notorious and disturbing films ever made, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 movie Salò is certain to be near the top. Released just weeks after the brutal and still unsolved murder of its director, the film takes the Marquis de Sade’s infamous 18th-century novel The 120 Days of Sodom as an inspiration for a two-hour odyssey that takes the audience into the dark heart of Italian fascism.
The film unfolds in Mussolini’s fascist Republic of Salò in the dying days of the Second World War, with four wealthy libertines kidnapping dozens of adolescents and locking them in a secluded castle. While middle-aged sex workers tell stories of depraved erotic pursuits, the libertines act out many of those stories on the “weak, chained creatures destined for our pleasure”. There’s rape, forced coprophagia and, ultimately, extreme, sadistic violence.
At the time of its release, Salò was a searing critique of wealth and privilege, showcasing just what humanity can be driven to in a world without consequences. Certainly, there’s plenty of talk of that on the special features of this new BFI release, which includes a number of documentaries about the film’s legacy – an early noughties effort fronted by Mark Kermode is the pick of the bunch. But the messaging here feels blunt and unsophisticated to modern eyes. Yes, consumerism is bad, but we don’t need to watch people eat shit to understand that.
Pasolini directs Salò with a deliberately detached eye, making it clear that the audience is observing these pursuits rather than actively participating. While movies like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games relish positioning the audience as complicit in the on-screen horror, Salò portrays them instead as passive voyeurs. It’s significant that the bloodshed and brutality – still powerfully unpleasant after more than 40 years – of the third act is witnessed through the binoculars the libertines wield.
Most shocking in 2019, actually, is how tedious much of the film’s running time is. The deliberately repetitive structure provided by the lewd stories is exhausting and leads to an odd feel in which there’s no sense of escalation. The horrors are merely different each day. As unpleasant as the libertines are, their ideology is difficult to pin down – a stark contrast to the focused hatred of fascism.
The thematic elements are certainly present, but they’ve lost their power to resonate. Instead, Salò merely appears as a well-directed, cinematically adept shocker that lacks the punch it had when it first exploded into the world. Ultimately, when the blood starts to flow in elaborate, taboo-pushing fashion, it’s difficult to feel too strongly about it. And for a film that endures almost entirely as a result of its notorious reputation, that’s perhaps the most damning fate of all.
Dir: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Scr: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sergio Citti
Cast: Aldo Valletti, Paolo Bonacelli, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, Giorgio Cataldi, Hélène Surgère, Sonia Saviange, Sergio Fascetti, Renata Moar
Prd: Alberto Grimaldi, Alberto De Stefanis, Antonio Girasante
DOP: Tonino Delli Colli
Music: Ennio Morricone
Country: Italy, France
Run time: 117 mins
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is available on Blu-ray in the UK from 30th September.