Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom Review
Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, the final film of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, was first issued onto UK DVD by the BFI in 2001. Effectively a bare-bones release, and sourced from a print in less than perfect condition, it was nonetheless an essential disc owing to the fact that the film had only been passed fully uncut by the BBFC the previous year; for many of us it was the first chance to catch up with this highly controversial masterpiece. Seven years down the line Salò is now amongst a series of re-releases from BFI, though in most cases this has resulted solely in improvements to the presentation (see Michael Nyman’s Man With a Movie Camera, La Belle et la bête, the forthcoming Orphée). Here, however, we find a complete re-vamp and arguably the BFI’s strongest package of a single title to date. For this reason my review of the film itself will be decidedly brisk so as to allow the new additions and improvements their full due. That said, another reason is perhaps just as relevant, namely that Salò is a work that almost defies criticism and prolonged analysis; it’s the cinematic equivalent of a being faced with a brick wall, though this also proves to be its very strength.
Any discussion of Salò is arguably best preceded with a breakdown of its plot, though narrative isn’t especially important here. There’s no real chain of events, more a catalogue of them. We open with a quartet of fascists – the setting is the Italy of 1944-45 during Nazi-Fascist rule – drawing up and signing a set of rules by which the rest of the film plays out. They seize and have delivered groups of young men and women from which they select the sixteen (eight of each) most beautiful or perfect. Once selected they are taken to a villa within which they will effectively be held prisoner whilst the quartet (aided by Italian soldiers of roughly the same age as their captors) do what they will with them. “Any debauchery is permitted”, as the dialogue states, and so it is: rape, sodomy, coprophagy (that’s shit-eating in layman’s terms), subjugation, humiliation and eventual murderous torture in the striking final scenes.
This is all laid out by Pasolini with remarkable visual precision. Salò immediately followed the director’s ‘Trilogy of Life’ (consisting The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights) and it’s remarkable how these fluid tales and their rough, improvised delivery have given way to such formal rigidity: static camerawork, a reliance on long-shots, delicately balanced staging, and so on. It’s also quite a shock to see some of the trilogy’s faces reappear in such squalid circumstances, amongst them the ostensible leads of Arabian Nights, arguably one of cinema’s happiest and most free-spirited couples. But then Salò is simply one big shock, where everything is permitted and narrative cruelly denied. There are slight instances of queasy humour – their very presence only added to the overall unease – but otherwise this is revulsion writ large and singularly.
The sensible question for those yet to experience Salò is, quite simply, why? Accusations of sensationalism and pornography would perhaps seem forthcoming, yet this could not be further from the truth. Indeed, Pasolini shows up the “decadent Nazism” of Salon Kitty, Visconti’s The Damned and The Night Porter for what it is: shallow, accessible, and even amenable for the most part. Here fascism, courtesy of the microcosm the villa effectively creates, is treated to an intense, angry scream – and, by extension if we wish to look a little wider, so is modern society as whole: Pasolini’s view being that a permissive, supposedly free but materialistic society is just as susceptible to, and complicit in, the horrors he sets forth.
But does that make it any good? A ‘question mark out of 10’ rating could be posited, owing to the fact that both 0/10 and 10/10 could be equally applicable given the nature of the film and just how close it comes to being unwatchable. And many will surely agree that you cannot pin an easy answer on it, although, and by the very same token, it is also extremely hard to deny its power. Cinema which creates a hold this strong, which forces you to commit (or turn away) so utterly, is a very rare occurrence and as a result Salò must surely be considered an essential work of art.
As said at the start of this review, the 2001 BFI edition was hardly presented in the best condition. Soft, grainy, burnt-in English subtitles, non-anamorphic: there was much room for improvement. Thankfully this new release earns recognition not simply because it rectifies these issues but because it does so immensely. Sourced from the original 35mm negative film elements and restored so as to remove as much of the damage as is possible, Salò now looks a revelation, especially for those who presumed many years ago that we’d never get the chance to see this film through legitimate means. (I’m a child of James Ferman, so to speak.) Needless to say, we are now presented with a near perfect image, full of detail and with a steely look that undoubtedly suits the mood of the piece. Anamorphic enhancement and optional English subtitles are now also in place, whilst the original mono soundtrack is much, much clearer. Interestingly, the BFI have also decided upon the inclusion of the original English dub as an alternative option and it comes off surprisingly well. Also noteworthy is the fact that it goes for a very different translation to that found in the subtitles for the Italian version. The memorable line about “tits to revive a dying man” goes through an almost complete –and far cruder – reinterpretation. What perhaps doesn’t surprise is the sound quality of the dub - rougher throughout with noticeable hiss, pops and cracker – but it’s an intriguing addition nonetheless.
The original Italian promo for the film’s initial release (complete with optional English subtitles), this kind of addition can usually be ignored. But then how do you promote a film such as Salò over four minutes? This goes for a compilation of clips as opposed to some other format or structure and the results make you question just how it was received by audiences. No matter how much Pasolini’s name is stated, is it possible to sensibly parade the naked bodies and the torture, removed from their original context, and not lead the viewer to potentially expect something else?
Ostia: The Death of Pier Paolo Pasolini
‘Ostia’ was a track recorded and released by Coil in 1986, its subject apparent from the title. (Ostia was the location of Pasolini’s brutal murder in 1975, just prior to Salò’s release.) Produced especially for this DVD, director Peter Christopherson has committed new imagery to the song. At once a music video and not quite, it offers both the descriptive visual accompaniment and the rhythmic editing we should expect, yet it is also quite unlike your standard promo. The setting is Bangkok and Christopherson draws parallels between the tortures committed in the Khmer Rouge during the time of Salò’s production (events which, we are told in the closing titles, saw boys as young as 10 murdered by those only a few years older) and the film itself courtesy of alternatively tender and explicit imagery.
The second disc houses four documentaries and a short with the aim of contextualising both Salò and Pasolini himself. Combining the old with the newly commissioned, they collectively weave a rich, informative tapestry though repetition understandably comes into play. My only regret is that the mid-nineties Channel 4 Cinefile documentary on Pasolini, hosted by Simon Callow, isn’t present on the disc as it was this and a brief season of the director’s films (amongst them The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Medea, Theorem and Oedipus Rex) which first introduced me to the man and his work.
Open Your Eyes!
An newly produced assemblage of the behind-the-scenes footage shot by Gideon Bachmann during his visits to the set (his diaries of the time are also reproduced in the accompanying 48-page booklet), this 21-minute piece offers a fascinating glimpse of Pasolini at work on the final scenes alongside interview material with two of the actors (fittingly, one plays a fascist, the other a victim). It’s the latter which perhaps proves the most interesting as we learn how they often learnt of the scene they due to film only minutes (three we are told) before the camera rolled. Apparently Pasolini wanted the fear and revulsion on-screen to look as genuine as possible!
Walking with Pasolini
The other new documentary on the disc, this piece combines BBC archive material and new interview footage to get under the skin of Salò - its subject matter, its context, its history with the censors, etc. Amongst the talking heads are the director Roberto Purvis, author Neil Bartlett, academic David Forgacs, senior member of the BBFC Craig Lapper and, briefly, Noam Chomsky, whilst Barry Norman, James Ferman and Pasolini himself feature in the older excerpts. The discussion here is largely in-depth and doesn’t really serve as an introduction to the film, more of a piece for those who are highly familiar with it.
Salò: Fade to Black
Given the nature of Walking with Pasolini this 2001 FilmFour production, hosted by Mark Kermode, provides a worthwhile introduction for those seeing Salò for the first time. Again talking heads are the order of the day – Forgacs once more, plus filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci, Catherine Breillat and John Maybury – though amongst their own interpretations of what Salò is about we also find much introductory background information to picture, placing it within the context of his career, commenting on his death and discussing its history with the BBFC. As a side note it also worth mentioning that the footage from the film itself are taken from the print used for the 2001 BFI release allowing ample opportunity to notice just how much this new disc marks an improvement.
Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die
Arguably the centrepiece of the second disc, this 1981 documentary made for Dutch television was originally issued as a standalone release on VHS by the BFI in the mid-nineties as part of their Academy Video range. (It also appears in much the same circumstances, though no doubt looks much better on disc: 1.33:1 aspect ratio, burnt-in English subtitles and English language voice-over.) Director Philo Bregstein states early on that this film is not a biography but an exploration of Pasolini’s themes. The latter claim is certainly true, but nonetheless they are weaved through a fine chronological account of the director’s life that will serve as a fine introduction. We learn of his childhood, political background, the death of his brother at a young age, his early career as a teacher and poet, and his numerous convictions. The final scenes are devoted to an investigation, if that is the correct term, of the injustice done when Pasolini’s murder was never properly investigated by the Italian authorities. A 17-year-old rent boy was arrested and convicted for the act, though evidence would suggest that this horrible crime was committed by more than one perpetrator. (As an aside it’s also something of a surprise to see graphic pictures of the murdered Pasolini adorning the front pages of the Italian press at the time.)
This 1987 production, seemingly shot on 16mm, was the graduation film of Royal College of Art student Julian Cole. As he notes in the optional director’s commentary, it was surprisingly ambitious for such a piece (and on such a budget) as it relocates Pasolini’s final days to the East End of London and features Derek Jarman as the Italian director. Admittedly, the film is perhaps best enjoyed with the commentary playing as we are offered a wealth of information despite the brief 25-minute running time. We learn of how Cole initially intended the piece to be strictly documentary before opening out the parallels with mid-eighties London, how he offered the part of Pasolini to Terence Stamp (who had, of course, played the lead in the director’s Theorem), how Jarman’s costume designer Sandy Powell offered her services to the film, and how the director of Caravaggio and The Last of England first discovered he was HIV positive. Incidentally, it’s also intriguing to find yet another film with Jarman in an acting role on disc – see also Ron Peck’s Nighthawks and the short The Clearing which accompanied the BFI’s DVD release of Wittgenstein. Did he appear in as many films as he directed? It’s certainly beginning to appear that way.
A wonderful addition, this hefty and lovingly produced little artefact follows the second disc insofar as it blends the old and the new. Articles come courtesy of Sam Rohdie (author of The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini) and Gideon Bachmann (his on-set diaries, as noted above), plus there are reproductions of Gilbert Adair’s Monthly Film Bulletin review of 1977, James Ferman’s 1979 letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions concerning Salò’s possible prosecution, and the lyrics to Coil’s ‘Ostia: The Death of Pasolini’. Peter Christopherson also contributes brief notes, whilst Geoffrey Nowell-Smith provides a brief bio of the director. The booklet is completed with a number of production stills, full credits and notes on the transfer. All told it’s a pleasingly rich and complementary package. Those wishing for further reading, however, should seek out Gary Indiana’s monograph on Salò, published by BFI as part of their Modern Classics range.