Salò - The 120 Days of Sodom Review
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last film is one of the most notorious ever made – and for once that’s not just empty hyperbole: while the intervening years have diluted the impact of countless films that were considered outrageously taboo-breaking (in some cases to the point where one really can’t see what the fuss was about), Salò – The 120 Days of Sodom remains as shocking and transgressive today as the day it was first screened, shortly before its creator's violent death.
Lest this sounds like some kind of challenging come-on, though, I’d better sound a note of caution – we’re in arthouse territory with a vengeance: even the most outré material is shot with a cold, clinical eye (virtually everything is in immaculately-framed long and medium shot) and the dehumanising of his characters (especially the victims) is so total that it’s impossible to empathise with them in any way other than a general feeling of disgust.
Despite copious full-frontal male and female nudity (once the film gets going, there’s scarcely a shot that doesn’t feature at least some), there’s nothing remotely eroticised about the way it’s presented – few films have more successfully reduced living human bodies to anonymous pieces of meat. Indeed, it was this lack of titillation that led former BBFC head James Ferman to believe that he could pass the film uncut back in the Seventies (though in the event he was overruled by both his colleagues and the police), and this is almost certainly the reason it’s been passed uncut now.
So what exactly is Salò, and why does it have an almost unique place in cinema history? The film has three main sources of inspiration, and the title reveals two: the Marquis de Sade’s novel The 120 Days of Sodom transposed to Mussolini’s short-lived attempt at creating a Fascist power base in the northern Italian town of Salò in 1943. Onto that, Pasolini grafts a structure inspired by Dante’s Inferno, in which the characters progress through four stages – ‘Antinferno’, ‘Circle of Manias’, ‘Circle of Shit’, ‘Circle of Blood’ – by the end of which they are either dead or irredeemably corrupted.
Four outwardly respectable pillars of society – a duke, a banker, a judge and a priest – kidnap sixteen beautiful youths, eight of each sex, and imprison them in a lavishly appointed chateau. There, with the aid of four guards, four well-endowed ‘fuckers’ and four middle-aged courtesans with an encyclopaedia of salacious stories, they are subjected to a wide range of physical and psychological tortures during which the whole basis of their civilised existence is systematically undermined and inverted, according to a complex system of rules drawn up by their tormentors.
Everything "natural" is inverted, and "discipline" means the unquestioning obediance of seemingly contradictory rules: sex is invariably accompanied by violence, tenderness by humiliation, the anus, mouth and vagina have essentially the same function, the buttocks are considered more expressive than the face, and, in the film's most notorious scenes, excrement and food are indistinguishable.
Where Salò stands apart from the more gratuitously exploitative likes of Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS and SS Experiment Camp is that it's based on a carefully calculated intellectual and philosophical framework - for all the film's extreme reputation, there's nothing gratuitous about the atrocities on show: all are meticulously worked into the overall pattern.
Indeed, to underline this, the opening titles contain a bibliography as well as the more usual credits, citing works by Simone de Beauvoir, Roland Barthes, Pierre Klossowski et al. And one thing that repeated viewings demonstrate is that once the initial shock has worn off, the film's rigorous complexity and even weird beauty become far more apparent. It's a far more controlled piece of work than de Sade's frenzied original, and far more pointed in its vicious satire of what was the dominant political system during Pasolini's youth. And knowledge of Pasolini's own life, and more specifically his militant homosexual Marxism, adds a fascinating and sometimes unnerving edge to a great many scenes.
But I can't stress enough that Salò not for everyone. Those who don't respond to its ideas will almost certainly be bored rigid, and those in search of cheap thrills will more than likely end up depressed and nauseated. This is take-no-prisoners filmmaking with a vengeance - in cinemas, it was marked by an unusually high walk-out rate, and on DVD it's probably safe to say that if you don't fancy paying the full £19.99 RRP you can almost certainly pick up a cheaper second-hand copy from someone who decided somewhat late in the day that it wasn't quite their sort of thing.
With the best will in the world, I can’t pretend that this DVD is anything other than a seriously missed opportunity. The BFI held all the cards – they’d managed to secure BBFC certification for the uncut version, the only other DVD of the film is famously out of print and changing hands for ludicrous sums (over £200 being typical), and the Criterion disc wasn’t generally reckoned to be one of their finest efforts either. So had the BFI disc offered a good transfer and the kind of intelligent, well-chosen extras this film above all badly needs, it would flatten the competition.
Sadly, though, this is one of the most disappointing DVDs I’ve seen in a long time. The transfer is mediocre at best, being sourced from a print that’s not exactly in pristine condition – it’s pretty good for the most part, but some shots show severe damage: spots, scratches and even blotches on occasion, not to mention large and obtrusive reel change marks.
Worse, the transfer is about as soft as they come, which does a film shot largely in medium and long shot no favours whatsoever (frankly, the opening credits look out of focus). The colours are somewhat faded and shadow detail is next to nonexistent (you can barely make out what's going on in the night scenes) – and although it’s been framed at the correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the picture is non-anamorphic. Frankly, the only reason I’m not giving this the lowest possible rating is that it’s not quite as bad as, say, a Madacy or MIA disc (there’s no obtrusive digital artefacting, which is a plus point) – but considering the BFI’s aims and reputation it should have been a lot better than this.
The soundtrack is similarly lacklustre, though to be fair to the BFI it was never especially outstanding in the first place, being the kind of post-synchronised mono track that’s absolutely typical of Italian films of this era. The subtitles, thankfully, are 16:9-friendly, but they’re also compulsory. There are just nine chapter stops, which are timed to coincide with Pasolini’s own chapter divisions.
The extras are similarly disappointing – at least in terms of what’s actually on the disc. The most immediately useful is Pasolini’s own introduction to his film, presented both as on-screen text and read aloud by the actor Nickolas Grace, which does a very good job of explaining in broad brushstroke terms what Pasolini was trying to do. A brief biography – more of an expanded filmography, really – of Pasolini is also included, together with a couple of poster images and the news that three more Pasolini DVDs are coming out in summer 2001. The only other extra is a link to the BFI website and their collection of Salò-related papers, which I might as well give you here. But if you want more, you’re going to have to shell out a further eight quid or so for Gary Indiana’s excellent monograph in the BFI Modern Classics series, which could easily have been adapted into a very effective and useful commentary if anyone had had the wit to do so.
So a generally poor DVD - but an important milestone nonetheless: this was one of the BBFC's greater challenges under their new guidelines, and I'm delighted to say that they've passed with flying colours: cutting a film like Salò, which is supposed to shock and revolt its audience, is completely pointless. Extreme it certainly is (and how!), but it's nonetheless an almost suicidally brave film - probably the furthest an indisputably major film artist has ventured in pursuit of his own demons. It wasn't Pasolini's last film by design, but it's hard to see where he could have gone from here.