The idea behind the “Don’t Watch It, John!” series is to find cinema that’s so rotten, so foul, so incredibly fetid that no other human being would dare recommend it to another human being. For this entry in the series, I’ll be discussing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). It’s a bit of a departure- usually, this series has involved very obviously bad films that populate the IMDb Bottom 100. Salò, believe it or not, is a Criterion Collection film. But as you will read moving forward, there were plenty of reasons for its inclusion as a “Don’t Watch It” film. May God have mercy on my soul.
What is Salò? Wikipedia describes it thusly:
Salò is a controversial 1975 Italian drama film written and directed by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini with uncredited writing contributions by Pupi Avati. It is based on the book The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade. Because of its scenes depicting intensely graphic violence, sadism, and sexual depravity, the movie was extremely controversial upon its release, and remains banned in several countries to this day. It was Pasolini’s last film; he was murdered shortly before Salò was released.
The film focuses on four wealthy, corrupted fascist libertines after the fall of Benito Mussolini‘s Italy in 1944 who kidnap a total of eighteen teenage boys and girls and subject them to four months of extreme violence, sadism, sexual and mental torture. The film is noted for exploring the themes of political corruption, abuse of power, sadism, perversion, sexuality, and fascism.
Who stars in this cinematic monstrosity? Frankly, nobody of note. In the very least, nobody of note to American and/or most English speaking audiences.
The Stats: IMDb has it at 6.1 out of 10 stars. Out of the 21 critics who have reviewed it for Rotten Tomatoes, 71% have given it a favorable rating. In other words, it’s not even considered “rotten”. But as you can see from the description above, it’s not the quality of the film that makes it a candidate for the series. It’s the brutal content. If you proceed from this point, I really must warn you that there are spoilers. And more importantly, these spoilers are vile, disgusting, and brutally shocking. The rest of this article is not for those with queasy stomachs. I try to take things lightly at TDYLF but I am as serious as a heart attack about my preceding statement.
The Review: Salò is the most difficult film I’ve ever seen and/or reviewed and I have no clue how to balance the good with the bad. First and foremost, it should be noted that the power themes are strong, tied tightly to sexual control. It’s a meditation on the interplay between anarchy, the power-holding elite, and the lower classes. The film begins in fascist Italy in 1944, with the ominous quote, “All things are good when taken to excess.” A few seconds later, the anarchists/elite postulate that “Bourgeois recoil not from slaughter though victim be son and daughter”, eliminating money as any sort of motivation for what’s about to happen- the systematic rounding up of teenaged children to be used in the sadistic undertaking. I’m not sure that there’s ever any reason given for the undertaking.
The undertaking is the complete and total subjugation of 18 teens (9 boys, 9 girls). They are stripped, given an appalling set of rules that they must live by lest they be punished severely, and more or less re-educated as dirt, as dogs, as absolutely nothing but slaves who exist to service the people who are conducting the sadistic experiment. Rape- both homosexual and heterosexual- is part of the program, as is constant learning from a woman who describes to them- with great delight- her own re-education into this twisted ethos. Teens who successfully inculcate the awful values (such as being able to masturbate in appropriate ways and at appropriate times) are “rewarded” with meaningless prizes like weddings to one another. It is a total institution in every way. Every facet of their lives is controlled, drilled into them, by the sadists. They are literally prompted to behave like dogs, eating from a dog dish, restrained by a leash, consuming what I presume was dog food. Away from the teens, the sadists often expound upon their nihilist ethos, peppering it with discussions of Nietzsche and others.
After a lengthy introduction to the ethos, the film splits around the halfway point into something called “The Circle of Shit”. Coprophagia (fecal consumption) had been hinted at throughout the film’s first half. It became a completely brutal reality in the second half. It is horribly protracted across several scenes and lasted for approximately twenty minutes. It felt like a lifetime when I was watching it. There is simply no way to sugarcoat it. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever witnessed in any film by a wide margin. It was graphic and repulsive enough that it literally made me gag multiple times. I gagged hard enough that at the end of the sequence, my stomach hurt and I was trembling.
Once the Circle of Shit concludes, the film approaches denouement. The teens are tortured some more, then murdered, as the sadists look on and pleasure themselves. Nobody escapes. Frankly, the kids are secondary to everything. They’re barely personalized in the movie. They are merely a vehicle for the brutal experiment to take place. And this is one of the issues I have with the film. As a viewer, we are given no lifeboat. There’s nothing at all for us to glom onto, to give us any hope at all. Like the teens, we are exposed to nothing more than Pasolini’s disgusting whims.
I will readily admit, I “get” what Pasolini was trying to do. Or at least, I think I understand it- using the torture of the youth (in such a shocking way) as analogy in a condemnation of the fascists populating Italy in the World War II era. Or perhaps it was (also) a condemnation of Italian capitalists who ceded so much to the fascists in the years leading up to Mussolini. Purely in the terms of filmmaking, it establishes a tone- that the sadists believe in total evil, and that excess is good. And Pasolini follows through on that theme completely. Purely in that regard, it is a “success” as a film. But I can’t put it in such black and white terms.
What I witnessed was revolting in ways that I never imagined, even with a really healthy dose of fair warning before seeing the film. It was pure torture imposed upon the film’s viewers and I’m not sure I understand the point of it all. Establishing his fascist analogy didn’t require twenty minutes of fecal consumption and countless rape scenes. I’d never advocate censorship in a million years. If a director wants to create something like this, it’s certainly their prerogative. I supposed I’d hope in an ideal world that such censorship wouldn’t be needed because people would employ their own self-censorship. I just can not imagine there being any excuse- not even artistic license- for creating something like this. And to drive my point home, this is the first and only time I’ve ever said anything like that about any movie I’ve ever seen.