Whenever the subject of the most controversial, and/or hardest-to-watch, movies is broached, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, gets an inevitable mention, and for good reason: it adapts an 18th century novel by the Marquis de Sade into a World War II setting and depicts 18 teenaged boys and girls subjected to gallery of abuses and tortures at the hands of Fascist aristocrats. While the Eurosleaze genre of the 1970s often dipped into World War II as gruel for exploitation (some of the most notorious titles of the era were Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S., Nazi Love Camp 27, and Gestapo's Last Orgy), Pasolini is no schlockmeister: even though Salò is often included alongside the grottiest of trash cinema, there's both considerable artistic and profound thematic value to its harrowing subject matter*.
In the waning years of World War II, with Italy reduced to a German puppet-state and Mussolini governing lamely from the northern Italian Social Republic (a.k.a. Salò), four fictional Italian noblemen devise the ultimate celebration of their libertine perversions: the kidnapping and heavily regimented sexual abuse of Italy's children. With the help of aging courtesans and a handful of sadistic soldiers, the masters carefully select and then seclude their victims in a handsome country estate, wherein stories of depravity are used as inspiration for a series of "games" that, at first, amount to various forms of rape before progressing to even more degrading and tortuous outcomes.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, is not a movie that most people should ever need or want to watch, but, with a detached style and finely arranged scenes, Pasolini makes powerful and compelling use of his transgressive subject. At first, with the masters' matter-of-fact arrangement of their horrible orgy, Salò is mordantly funny. Bland enthusiasm occasionally gives way to fits of selfish frustration completely at discord with the suffering of their subjects. the performances of Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle and Aldo Valletti (all of their voices were dubbed by other actors) are plainly haunting, making each into a potent icon for the banality of evil, which is amusing when it's not deeply upsetting.
Pasolini's treatment of the victims, even though they are largely silent, is maybe even more provocative: although some of the youngsters act out from fear, most patiently await and endure their abuse; some of the young men even seem slightly bemused by the rituals. This is clearly a generation of children who have been raised to expect and comply with abject dehumanization at the hands of authorities. While another director may have strained to milk pathos out of Salò's depictions of vain cruelty and pointless suffering, Pasolini's artfully cold passivity is profoundly heartbreaking. In this way, Salò shares an unlikely thematic commonality with Vittorio De Sica's great post-war humanist film, The Bicycle Thieves. Like De Sica, Pasolini seems scathingly critical of the role of Italian men in their country's self-inflicted wounds, especially regarding the effect that hyper-masculine self-indulgence has on future generations. Obviously, however, Pasolini's wealthy culprits are a class apart from De Sica's simply boorish working men. The masters in Salò are not overtly political — the only character to express true belief finds little sympathy, and it's socialism's fetishized working class that provides the victims here — they are enabled by Fascist authoritarianism, not driven by it.
Most interestingly, in one of Salò's most carefully provocative statements about its evils, the masters are not primarily concerned with the torture of their victims, except as punishment for breaking their fetishized rules. the masters' four-month reign of terror is, ultimately, aimed at degrading themselves, as they gleefully participate in the harrowing acts that they force upon their captives. This isn't the shallow, incoherent and emotionally strident anti-authoritarianism of Battle Royale or The Hunger Games, even though Salò shares startlingly similar inspiration. Pasolini's critique of Italian Fascism extends beyond the force that a malevolent system projects upon others; Salò depicts the system as an outward manifestation of a deep-seated yearning for self-debasement on the part of the upper classes. Surrounded by wealth and postmodern art, privileged with unearned power, unmoored from the humanity of themselves and others, and with no values beyond their physical urges, the masters are empty and they know it. They can only feel when engaged in activities that distort them into monsters, and monsters that can only feel when they are affected by the tortures that they distribute. Caught within this sado-masochistic loop of self-abnegation are the depersonalized innocents; those who survive the indignities inflicted upon them by whatever coping mechanisms allow them to stunt and numb their own nascent humanity, are thereby bred as the next generation of self-hating libertines.
There are no heroes, no revolutions, no victories over adversity in Salò; and it is deeply disturbing and outright gross to watch. But it's also, rightfully, an important work of art expressing complicated and distressing ideas about the nature of the powerful and the motives behind totalitarian systems.
* I watched the 116-minute version with Italian-language audio and English subtitles. Clips that I've seen from versions, some shorter, dubbed in English appear to have been "trashed up," with lousy voice acting, music and sound effects and poor dialog, perhaps making Salò appear closer to mere exploitation than was intended.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickcharter Grant Douglas Bromley, who can be found on Flickchart under the username grantvbromley. He ranks it on his chart at #46 / 1784 (97%), making it his 4th favorite movie out of 31 from Time Out: New York's list of the 50 Most Controversial Movies. Salò ranked on my Flickchart at #537 (86%), making it my 11th favorite out of 26 movies from Time Out's 50 Most Controversial Movies.