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.