Saturday, March 26, 2005

#17: Salò

Salò o le 120 Giornate di Sodoma, 1975, written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, based on 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade.

Critics often describe movies as visceral. If they haven't seen Salò, I respectfully submit that they don't know what the fuck they're talking about. This film literally made me vomit. (And yes, I'm using "literally" correctly there). I don't think that makes it a good film, but "visceral," in the sense of "affecting the internal organs?" Yeah, Pasolini's got that.

Salò is a small town in Brescia that was the seat of government for the Italian Social Republic, the German puppet state that Mussolini established after the Nazis "liberated" him. Pasolini's movie is a retelling of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, set in Salò during the waning days of World War II. It's kind of a genius transposition: the childish nihilism of de Sade is a good fit for the preening, self-annihilating cult of death that was Fascism. So I give Pasolini credit for that. But that isn't enough to defend this atrocity of a film.

The basic story: four Fascist officials, knowing that the Republic of Salò will soon fall to the Allies, and knowing that they will deserve anything their conquerors care to do to them, decide to really earn their fates. You could say with a straight face that these characters are Rumsfield's archetypical dead enders. They kidnap nine young men and nine young women and retire to a country villa. Once there, they proceed to torment, rape, torture, and kill their prisoners.

I don't really want to go into too much detail as to what is done to these eighteen men and women, except to say that it gets worse as the movie goes on. There are four sections to the film: Antechamber of Hell, Circle of Obsessions, Circle of Shit, and Circle of Blood. In that order. The Circle of Shit, which features a giant banquet of human excrement, is what made me lose my dinner. My body completely rejected what I was seeing. And the Circle of Blood was even worse.

I think Salò is interesting movie to think about in the abstract, but watching it is poisonous. For me, it raises the question of at what point filming atrocities is itself reprehensible. Pasolini clearly didn't intend for Salò to be pleasurable to watch. And I wouldn't say art has to have a purpose, or be enjoyable, to be good. But in this movie, human beings are reduced to objects; they suffer, cry, beg for their lives, betray their companions, and die. There's no interest in them except as bodies; even in the credits, they are listed as "Victims (Men)" and "Victims (Women)." It's impossible to watch this kind of degradation and not be degraded by it yourself; and indeed, that seems to be Pasolini's goal. The end of the film allows us to watch the torture and murder of the victims from a safe distance, through the eyes of the Fascist officials; the viewer is explicitly implicated. A certain amount of viewer implication is a good thing; see Psycho, or Badlands. But this is something else entirely—I don't feel that I have anything in common with the depraved killers in Salò, now or ever.

Pasolini put together this film at a low point in his life (and shortly before he was strangled to death by a male prostitute). After making several successful movies, Pasolini, a dedicated Marxist, decided that by producing entertainment, he was helping keep the masses content and stupid. Salò was conceived as a kind of Brechtian fuck-you gesture from Pasolini to his audience; his stated intention was to produce an "indigestible" movie. Mission accomplished.


Anonymous said...

I found Salo' already drowned in the saliva of its own anticipation. This is not a film of Sade, but a transmutation of very solid facts into an excrement of art capable of being ingested.

The solid element is the auto-erotic death-cult of Fascism, which is itself too bizarre to be parodied. By the alchemical process of Sade's 120 Days, an abstract structure is forced upon it, as well as a dialogue salad of killer one-liners to choose from. The final siphoning is its insertion within the inverted cone of Dante's Inferno, where the plot's peristalsis carries events inexorably down to a climactic anus.

Thus, the amoral 20th Century is fed back to the philosophical 18th Century, before judgement is passed on it by the censorious 14th. Ultimately, the film fails to do the business. It cannot take us to the Ninth Circle of Hell, because we would have to pass the burning desert of the Seventh Circle, and there Pasolini would meet himself; but we do not believe any more that Hell is for homosexuals, and the concentric sphincters of Dante's satanic cinder cone hold no terrors for us any more.

The film cannot any better show us Dante than it could show Sade, since he is unfilmable. The excrement-eating scene which is pivotal for Pasolini is on practically every page of Sade. The book is saturated with every kind of sexual content, as if probing the reader to find which one will do the trick. But very soon the games turn even nastier, and the final sections of the book make very diffcult reading indeed. Only an idiot would read it to the end.

So all we are left with is Salo' itself, the film that is, to help us with making sense of Salo' the political and historical reality. I think Sade's genial, drawing-room Holocaust captures the genuine clerical humdrumness of methodical genocide; but at least there's no doubt his vile characters are trying their best to have a good time. Pasolini's, with their ridiculous transvestism, their half-hearted orgies and lily-livered alfresco torture picnics read too easily as the bad people in Biblical epics, who are never allowed to look as if they're actually enjoying their sins. I'm certain the sadistic scum of Fascism's last days certainly gave their meaningless violence a bit more welly, and didn't all the time look as if they'd rather be somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

' knowing that they will deserve anything their conquerors care to do to them, decide to really earn their fates'

Is this your interpretation? The reason I ask is because I don't recall this being explained in the movie. Based on historical fact, I'll concede that they realized the end was near, but I don't remember any explanation other than the whole "wedding celebration" agreement near the beginning.

Love the reviews, by the way.

Matthew Dessem said...


I'm not really sure how to respond to your comment, but mostly that's because I can't bear to spend much time thinking about Salò.

Matthew Dessem said...


No, I don't remember this being made explicit. I think I was paraphrasing something Martin Amis wrote about the Stalinists, but I'm not sure. There's certainly an air of doom about the whole enterprise though, wouldn't you say?

Anonymous said...

Pasolini wasn't strangled by a male prostitute. He was attacked and beaten over the head, kicked to a pulp, and run over by a car, by a supposed male prostitute. Most accounts of his death suggest he was killed by more than one person. If you saw the pictures of his dead body, you'd probably be reminded of lynching pictures from the south in the North America.

Matthew Dessem said...


Didn't know that. The Criterion essay gave me the impression he had been killed by one person, but I didn't really research it further. That's horrible.

Ted T. said...

I saw it yesterday at Lincoln Center and as much as I resented having to sit through some of it, it is a very timely film for 2007. Anytime one hears one of the Republican presidential candidates defending torture, one needs Salò as a reminder of not just what torture is, but how dehumanizes both those committing it and those who through action or inaction acquiesce to torture in their name.

So far as Pasolini's death, Vincent Canby (in his Salò review) states that he was run over repeatedly with his own Alpha-Romeo, driven by a 17 year old pickup (male prostitute?) who was convicted of the murder.

Matthew Dessem said...

Ted T.,

Good point—perhaps an enterprising activist could hack the projectors behind the stage at the Republican national convention.

Where did you find Canby's review?

Anonymous said...

I would like to say that I agree with absolutely everything you have to say about this movie. I, too, felt a truly physical reaction when I watched this film (thankfully, not in a theater) and had to stop the viewing on several occasions. I only finished it out of some odd sense of duty (thinking that there MUST be a reason for this film to be released by Criterion). And, even though I enjoy owning most of the Criterion DVDs and returning to many of them from time to time, I got this one out of my house QUICK! Not an enjoyable film experience, I must say, but then I don't think Pasolini meant it to be.

I just came across your website and am enjoying your reviews very much.

Matthew Dessem said...


Glad you're enjoying the website; glad you agree with me that Salò is about as far from enjoyable as film can get. I can't imagine seeing this in a theater; I think they show it from time to time at the New Beverly here in Los Angeles. It might be worth hanging out in the lobby just to see the ashen-faced walkouts, but you couldn't pay me to watch it on a big screen.

Lewis Saul said...

The fact that you lost your dinner means that you are a good human being. I have seen other Pasolini, but this is one of the few Criterion titles I have yet to see.

And I'd like to think I have a strong stomach, but having read detailed synopses, I get the feeling I'd retch, too...

Lewis Saul

Matthew Dessem said...


Yeah, it's not a good movie for the digestive tract. I'd put off seeing this as long as possible, if I were you.

Anonymous said...

The Samurai Trilogy is all about narrative. Salo is all about content. I think there’s a difference. Salo has a fairly thin plot that serves as a frame upon which to hang a series of increasingly deviant acts. The whole raison d’être for this film is to present the audience with these images. The plot is secondary.

This is an intentionally disturbing film, and with the exception of the scenes in The Circle of Shit (which did induce some queasiness) this probably has less to do with the acts themselves than with the way they are presented. Let’s face it, we’ve all seen more sexually explicit and more graphically violent films. The last two Oscar winners for Best Picture, The Departed and No Country For Old Men, are both far more explicitly violent than Salo. But Salo’s vision of depravity is unrelenting. For all the nudity here, there isn’t an erotic frame in the film. Its opening and closing credits are accompanied by a la-di-da musical score and everything in-between is presented in a matter-of-fact, dispassionate way. It surprises and disturbs us that Pasolini doesn’t overtly condemn what is so obviously atrocious and that he seems to have no greater regard for the victims than their oppressors. That the viewer doesn’t feel much empathy for the victims is unsettling.

Input affects output. I copped that aphorism from the computer sciences, but I have found it applicable to other parts of life including the relationship between the media and their audience. What we view, hear and read absolutely affects us intellectually and/or emotionally, sometimes overtly, sometimes subliminally. And if this is true, then instead of consuming mindlessly and indiscriminately what the media offer (which is too often the case), we ought to be much more selective in what we are willing to expose ourselves too. Salo is about a lot of things, but I think that this is one of Pasolini’s points. He has made a film so repulsive that we are forced to reject it. All very well and good, but what does this say about Pasolini?

If this were the only way to convey this particular message, I might make allowances. But I figured this all out years before I saw Salo. And isn’t Pasolini, as a widely distributed and highly regarded filmmaker, a member of a powerfully elite group? By foisting Salo on a paying public, isn’t he in the same position as the film’s quartet of Masters? Pasolini simultaneously degrades and profits from his audience (or would have had he lived). Don’t Pasolini and his Salo become part of the problem rather than the solution? He wants to implicate his audience in the corruption at hand, but Salo seems to signal his personal corruption more than anything else.

Matthew Dessem said...


Glad you made it through. Your point about the style affecting the way the film is received is well taken. For me, the thing that was most repulsive about Salò was the way the victims are relentlessly dehumanized. The other films are more violent, but they don't reduce their characters to objects the way Salò does.

I don't think I wrote about this at the time, but there was one moment in Salò that I thought was quite good: the scene where the victims sing a fascist anthem, as though the sentimental appeal of fascism still has some pull even then.

Still, to quote Roger Ebert, I hated, hated, hated this movie.

Anonymous said...

Matthew - I just heard (May 16 08) about the Criterion 2-disc reissue of Salo, and am eager to hear what your take on it is. I suppose that will be after its release, of course. I may even allow the movie across the threshold of my home just to see the extras, which sound quite interesting. Hope the job search is going well for you.

Brad Barschow said...

Over the summer I was "lucky?" enough to have the oppurtunity to see "Salo" in 35mm at the Sean Luu
Horror fest at the palace theater in Syracuse, NY. I have to say that it is an experience that I will never forget.

First of all "Salo" played only minutes after Charles Band's camp obscurity "Terrorvision". This contrast from the campy fun of terrorvision to the deeply disturbing "Salo" only helped me feel like something was terribly wrong after watching this nearly dangerous film.

I realize using the word "dangerous" is terribly over-dramatic however in the past I have handled nearly every kind of film, no matter how dark the subject matter was with a perfectly clear head after viewing and my screening of Salo was unlike any other experience with film ever, and even though I felt the experience was worth it is not something that I really would like to go through again.

Seeing "Salo" on the big screen, made my palms sweat, I could hear my heart beat and the longer the movie went on the filthier I felt. At the end of the film I turned to my friend and said "Now I believe I need to find a therapist" and to think I almost meant it!

Due to the fact that this movie was able to evoke such emotion out of me (even if it is emotion that I do not want or need to experience again) I highly recommend seeing this movie at least once. I was very happy to see that criterion re-released this film on DVD, I am very excited to see the special features to gather more insight on the history of Salo.

Anonymous said...

I really dont understand why everyone hates this movie!

I consider a masterpiece of cinema, one of the best i have ever seen.

Salo is a movie which depicts the shame of being human...the sad truths....the fact that we are all mere puppets, held together by a bunch of people who still do not realise their own freedom.!

The four "libertines" signify our Government....a group of people we trust and even love....but how they do (in some cases)...rape us of our own souls. Case and point..the scene where the boy begs to the magistratem looking at him as a savour when in fact..he is the one who spells his doom!!!!!

The way the four of them USE their power...personified by the may i say..shockingly metaphoric!

How the guards themselves enjoy what their SUPERIORS are doing, their own descent into perversion to the point that they do not realise how corrupt they have one of the best examples of how power..being a silent spectator..becomes a smiling participant!

However power is but a facet of the man...and we see it degraded when the Guard is shot for his liason with the maid!

The victims.....signify us all!

How we let the world cheat we readily take part in its "games" only to end up destroyed ourselves is very very clearly shown! In the movie...the only way for the victims to escape is by acting as the libertines want ie by destroying the bounds of what society deems acceptible....which is what we read in the countless works of poets n writers who try to set up the spark of a revolution!

The four prostitutes are the timid middle-men....people who do not like what they see.....but comply with that is what they feel is best....! I dont beleive any of the stories recited by them in this movie provide even a hint of sincere enjoyment!

Lastly...Salo represents how infact we all are but betraying ourselves....a clear picture of nihilism!!!

The two scenes that jarringly stand out for me are the one where one of the victims...knowing her ineveitable death screams out...."Lord why have you forsaken me?"....Its an extreme a fictional world the lord wouldve come....but here...Pasolini shows us the harkening plea with the girl in a tub of shit....a tub of ones own faeces...the dirt of ones soul....!

The other one is where the boy, his eyes gouged out is raped by one of the libertines.....a scene which can be interpreted as simple porn....or as a sentiment showing us the blindness which leads to the lack of knowledge of an assailant!

I am tired of people berating this movie....Its high time these unimaginative people get a real job.........!!!!!!!!!

All one needs to see through it is an unjaundiced which Pasolini shows most incandescently is the true answer to freedom for the victims....or as i feel.....for US!!!

Anonymous said...

I'm assuming You've never seen Funny games, or Haneke's other German films. That one is the same as this, but I guess you would say family friendly. I'm curious to see how this compares to Romma (haven't seen either)great reviews by the way.

Lament797 said...

I am dissapointed when I see comments from people who, in one way or another, try to find something negative about Salo. Pasolini remains a great director with an unique style and view, so each persons who watches his movies should think twice before saying anthing malicious about them.
There are more interpretations of this movie that I accept and I totally agree that this movie is a masterpiece and I do not find it that difficult to watch. I would even say that those who claim that they find it a struggle with themseves to watch this film till the end of it are rather squeamish.

Anonymous said...

I am not going to lie. This movie fascinates the hell out me. Not only the film itself, but also peoples strong reactions to it. It's definitly one of those films that I feel guilty about liking, since most assume that one would have to either psychotic or completly depraved to appreciate it. My reaction to Salo wasn't as strong as I thought it would be, since I have been desensetized by the Hostel torture porn generation. But I was still disgusted by a lot of it (The eye gouging ugh). I don't think that the film is an atrocity just for the images it's shows. I am one of those people who doesn't mind shock if the shock has purpose, and the grotesque events here do have purpose.

yamfood said...

"I don't feel that I have anything in common with the depraved killers in Salò, now or ever."

If you don't think you have anything in common with them then you may have missed the point. We are all much closer to these depraved villains than we think. It is human nature to take take joy in others suffering and humiliation. Pretending that is not part of our nature is a good way to be consumed by it.

Mary O said...

Whew! While I am new to "Sweet Movie" (having just seen it this year) I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Only because I keep wanting more and more out of the films I see, and that's just the escapist and the thrill-seeking aspects of why I choose to watch films like this. I haven't seen Salo, but it keeps popping up in conversations and even on my netflix suggestion box.

while I don't necessarily NEED to sit through films which find the characters vomiting and shitting everywhere, while I don't NEED to see violent depictions of rape and torture, I still am drawn to movies like this. Does that make me a depraved or sick individual? I hope not. But I also can't get over the envy I feel when I find out that for every film I've seen in my 27 years on this earth that I haven't been able to stop thinking about (ie: Irreversible, Sweet Movie, A Serbian Film, and Begotten to name just a small few), I find a half a dozen more films I am drawn to that deserve to be viewed at least by me, don't they?

I mean, someone made this film. He made it for himself, to be sure, but I'd like to think he knew that at some point a bunch of film geeks would be debating it's merit. Or, maybe he just liked the idea of people watching Salo and screwing or puking (or both, simultaneously, he never said he was a role model haha).....either way, I'm in!

But I do appreciate all the warnings, you guys! I'll let you know if I "vote puke" :)

Lite Fuzz said...

Pasolini made a Jesus biopic based on one of the Gospels, (Matthew maybe, or Mark) that was truly moving. I loved it. One of my favorites, but probably never would have considered it if Salo had not pushed Pasolini onto my cultural dashboard.

Anonymous said...

I consider myself to be someone who is well steeped in the knowledge of film, and though I've read Pasolini's poetry, novels & essays, "Salo" is a film I have yet to see. I've just purchased the Criterion DVD. So . . . I plan to consume at least a half bottle of red wine before I begin viewing - then consume the other half WHILE viewing.

Anonymous said...

Its clearly repulsive but the more you learn about the extent of global financial skullduggery and endless war machinations operating right in front of a hypnotized bovine public, the more you think this is pretty damn accurate of how the conveyor belt goes: the laughing psychopathic sadists grinding us all down for chuckles and the dupes who go along with it. Eat or be eaten, truth freedom and democracy inc. I think of Monsanto when the shit eating scene comes up.

Dunno, what would he make of our world today where its even more out in the open (especially the pedophilia, PPP got that right) and yet people are even more asleep at the wheel? You can really share in the guy's rage even if the flick seeks to burn you just as bad.

Pasolini was hit, give me a break. Read into it a bit more, they even made a movie about it.

Aaron said...

...and yet, you've read it to the end.

Unknown said...

This is one of my top 10 favorite films. Yeah, it shocks and disgusts me every time, and I almost didn't make it through my first viewing, and it DID traumatize the fuck out of me, but I adore it still. Using relentless sadomasochism as a metaphor for the abuses of power under a totalitarian state is just perfect. Showing the victims as just pieces of meat to be used and abused worked sickeningly well, because, after all, what are the people to those in power? We're reduced, as Pasolini said in an interview (some of which is on the current release), to a saleable commodity. In his own words: "There is a lot of sex in it, especially towards sadomasochism, which has a very specific function... It represents what power does to the human body, to the human being."
I heard that after my first viewing, and when I finally gathered the courage to watch the film again, it suddenly clicked, and the film held me captivated and horrified all at once. Its impact on me is immense, and I thank it for stimulating my mind and getting me thinking more deeply about politics and power.