Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom Review
Let’s be plain and upfront about this from the start. Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom is unquestionably a vile film. It not only looks ugly, it’s subject matter is depraved, it’s difficult to watch without feeling deep revulsion and, for what you have to endure, it’s ultimately unrewarding. If there is any deeper meaning to the film other than to provoke outrage, disgust and controversy, it’s surely beyond the comprehension of any rational being. That at least is likely to be the viewer’s initial reaction to watching Salò, and that is exactly the reaction the director wants you to experience. Obviously however, the viewer needs to get past that violent gut reaction and dig deeper to uncover just what Pier Paolo Pasolini intended to convey through what would become one of the most notorious, provocative, powerful and most challenging films ever made, a film whose ultimate purpose may always remain unfathomable since it would tragically end up being the director’s last.
If the viewer is willing to get beneath the surface of a subject that doesn’t obviously encourage or invite further investigation, they will soon find that many of those prejudices held from an initial viewing are in fact wrong. Even if the film’s intention is only to cause outrage and shock the viewer, then Salò has considerable merit for the sheer commitment and unflinching manner in which it sets about exposing the corrupting abuse of power by a group of important dignitaries and influential fascist-supporting citizens of the town of Salò - a banker, a duke, a bishop and a judge - who install themselves in a villa on the shores of Lake Garda and round-up a group of young boys and girls, specially chosen for their looks and their bodies. Over the course of three days, these slavering old men and their morally corrupt wives, systematically strip, sexually abuse, degrade, rape, torture, mutilate and kill their mostly submissive captives while telling stories to arouse and inspire each other to even greater acts of depravity. Evidently, that’s not meant to be pleasant viewing and Pasolini ensures that the viewer is accordingly filled with disgust, anger and revulsion for what occurs.
The film may indeed have once appeared to be superficially ugly (an impression no doubt in part gleaned from previous viewings from rough, crudely cut cinema prints and DVD editions where the quality certainly left something to be desired), but it is in fact calculatedly cool and detached from the vile acts, intentionally unadorned by mannerism or any evident stylisation, striving to show them in the full light of the horror and de-eroticise the excessive nudity on display. What is also clear is that the film is not an exercise in depicting random acts of unthinkable perversion and obscenity, but rather a carefully structured film with strong literary and philosophical influences (the film even goes as far as providing an essential bibliography in the opening titles) aligned not only to the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, from where the film takes its title, but also to Dante’s Inferno (the film is structured and divided accordingly into the Antechamber of Hell followed by three Circles, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit and the Circle of Blood). Taking place in 1944 however, Pasolini imposes this setting onto the Nazi-Fascist occupation of Northern Italy, using it as an example of the ultimate abuse of power in what the director himself would describe as “an immense metaphor of what was the Nazi-Fascist disassociation from its crimes against humanity”.
That much it is possible to comprehend and rationalise to some extent with a little bit of research and willingness to explore the philosophical issues that Pasolini raises, but even then such a heritage and subject can only go half-way to justifying the sheer explicitness of the obscene behaviour to which the director subjects the viewer. What complicates one’s attempt to understand Pasolini’s intentions with Salò however is the complexity of the man himself and his own personal investment in the film. A complex individual, a committed Marxist, a homosexual, a filmmaker who had previously celebrated Christianity for the common people in The Gospel According to St. Matthew and the joy of sexuality in his Trilogy of Life (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights) and who also had railed against the corruption of bourgeois middle-class values in Theorem and Pigsty, Salò evidently has a much more contemporary and personal meaning for Pasolini. It’s not just about the abuse of absolute power corrupting absolutely, but is also a commentary on consumerism in modern society and of class structures - a deep expression of anger, disillusionment and loathing against society and against himself that has become grossly distorted through his own complex intellectualism, political beliefs, philosophy and personality.
What it comes down to with Salò then is whether you want to consider the unthinkable and watch the unwatchable, whether you are prepared to watch scenes of horrifying depravity and whether you are likely to be offended with such a deeply nihilistic view of humanity. Although the film explores the dark side of humanity, there seems to be nothing remotely humane about it. The cold detachment with which it is filmed, the stripping down of the characters to anonymous pieces of meat is all about distancing oneself from one’s humanity – hence the beauty of youth and normal bodily functions and behaviour are twisted and perverted so that they no longer serve the function they were intended for and in the process they become very ugly indeed. The horror of Salò then is that it asks the viewer to go to a very unpleasant place and accept behaviour that they would rather not recognise as human.
There is a difficulty with this however, and it’s that the sheer force of Salò’s content and imagery which are the film’s primary merit can also be detrimental to its purpose. The spectacle is simply too overpowering for anyone to consider the content intellectually or from a distance. Pasolini’s treatment gives the appearance of being disciplined, structured and considered in its literary and philosophical content, but in reality its message - if there is a coherent message here that can be completely understood at all - is confused and compromised. Seemingly wrapped up in personal issues, anger, self-loathing, the literary and philosophical parallels sit uncomfortably with Pasolini’s personal obsessions, contradictions and political views, and the resultant excess of the content and imagery consequently seems scarcely justifiable or proportional to the subject. The relating of sordid and frankly rather ridiculous erotic tales which takes up a sizeable portion of the film is surely not the best means of representing Fascism or even operating as an effective metaphor for the body as a commodity in a consumerist society. On the other hand, for many, these contradictions, parallels and the extraordinary conflation of ideas are precisely the film’s strength, and it’s certainly why the film remains just as powerful, controversial and debatable today as it was when it first appeared and was immediately banned 30 years ago. Like it or not, whether you consider it Pasolini’s best film or not, Salò is however still one of the most important, modern, disturbing and challenging films ever made.
Salò is released on Blu-ray in the UK by the BFI. A two-disc set, the film is presented on BD25 disc with a 1080/24p encode, while the extra features are on a DVD9 disc. The Blu-ray disc is encoded for Region B, the extras disc is Region 2 encoded and in PAL format (576/50i).
It need hardly be said that, sourced directly from the restored original Italian negative, the High Definition presentation of the film is light-years ahead of the previous BFI DVD edition of the film released back in 2001 when the film’s ban on an uncut print was lifted by the UK censor. Grain is evident in the opening credits, but it becomes less of a problem once the actual film starts, only cropping up occasionally, and then only in shots of the sky, of which there are few in this closed-in film. The clarity is remarkable, allowing far more detail to be seen that you might be comfortable with, but it really does show that the film is very well composed and framed, something that was not so evident in earlier editions. The tone appears to be a little bright in places and strongly contrasted in others. The blue hue is very weak, allowing reds and greens to dominate, and as a consequence, the film can look faded with colour tones subdued or slightly desaturated. (The notes in the booklet by Gideon Bachmann indicate that Pasolini ideally wanted the film to be in black-and-white, so this look may be intentional). While for the most part then skin tones look natural and are certainly detailed, but they can appear slightly pinkish. Blacks are deep, showing some shadow detail, but not a great deal, and sometimes looking rather flat. It seemed to me that edge-enhancement appeared a little excessive in some scenes. BFI however have clearly gone to every effort to find the best available materials and it does show, particularly in the stability and fluidity of the movement. In comparison to their earlier edition, it looks like a completely different film here, throwing a completely new light on some sequences to the extent that they looked to me like new scenes. It is indeed is like seeing the film properly for the first time. The BFI edition is completely uncut and uncensored.
Comparisons between the BFI Blu-ray and the previous BFI DVD edition are shown below (my thanks to John White for all the HD screen captures included in this review). I need hardly tell you which is which.
There are two choices of audio track – the original Italian or the original English dub. Evidently the Italian PCM 48kHz 1.0 mono track is the one to go for and again, the improvement in quality is substantial. Clarity is not perfect – it can be a little rough in places and there is some light distortion in louder passages (i.e. screams, of which there are many) – but it has good tone, strength and, without any hiss or analogue noise, it is surely about as good as it could possibly be. Lip-syncing is obviously an issue since the film was post-synchronised, but it seems to be better fitted than the previous DVD edition. The original English dub is also included, again PCM 48kHz 1.0 mono, and on a brief sample it is just as good, with crystal clear voices and only marginally worse lip-syncing issues. You’re not really going to consider this option though.
Two sets of English subtitles are provided, depending on which audio option you choose. The optional subtitles for the Italian audio track are a close translation of the original text, while the optional subtitles for the English dub are a transliteration of the spoken English dialogue. Evidently this (known in anime circles as dubtitles) is not as accurate a translation, since the dialogue is altered slightly to fit better with mouth movements. As I said before, you’re not really going to select this as a viable way to watch the film.
Disc One includes the film’s Original Italian Trailer (4:09) and Coil - Ostia (the Death of Pasolini) (6:54), a new short film by Peter Christopherson set to the original 1987 song by Coil, comparing the death of Pasolini to the activities of the Khmer Rouge whose activities in Cambodia at the time Pasolini’s film was made uncannily mirror the actions seen in Salò and in the murder of Pasolini. Both features, on the Blu-ray disc, are High Definition (1080/24p). The remaining features are on Disc Two, which is a regular Region 2 encoded PAL DVD and is not High Definition. They present a wide overview of opinion and context for the film and of Pasolini’s life and death.
Open Your Eyes! (21:13) is a newly created on-set documentary using full-colour footage shot in 1974 by Gideon Bachmann. There are some interviews with the cast talking about the experience of working on such an unusual film, and a lot of behind-the-scenes footage of Pasolini working to film the difficult final torture scenes of the film.
Walking with Pasolini (21:13) is another newly created documentary where a number of experts and commentators discuss the film, its difficulties with the BBFC and attempt to throw some light on Pasolini’s motivations.
Mark Kermode introduces Fade to Black (23:26), a fine overview of the film, its controversy and the censorship issues it ran up against. It features insightful contributions from Bernardo Bertolucci, Catherine Breillat, John Maybury and David Forgacs.
Philo Bregstein's 1981 documentary Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die (58:16) examines Pasolini’s whole career, looking specifically at his poetry, writings, and key films and relating them to his life and his beliefs. With contributions from Bernardo Bertolucci and Laura Betti, it focuses heavily, with disturbing actual photographs of the crime scene, on the horrific circumstances of Pasolini’s death.
Ostia (25:40) is a 1991 short film by Julian Coles on the death of Pasolini starring Derek Jarman in the lead role. An art-school student graduation film with poor acting, rough video quality and crackly sound, it nevertheless draws interesting parallels between the social issues that affected Pasolini and then contemporary gay culture in the UK. The optional director’s commentary track focuses mostly on how it was made but makes an interesting observation that Jarman was undergoing his own personal problems at the time, having just been diagnosed with AIDS.
The set is rounded out with a superb booklet illustrated with black-and-white and colour stills. Covering all aspects of the film from an archival and modern perspective, there is a fine examination of the film and its context with Pasolini’s other work by Sam Rohdie. An archive Sight & Sound article by Gideon Bachmann recording the progress of the film’s making through an on-set diary gathers many useful quotes from Pasolini on his intentions and treatment of Salò. There is a 1979 review of the film by Gilbert Adair, a look at the history of the film’s censorship, the social and historical context in which it is set and a reproduction of James Ferman’s letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions appealing for the film to be given special consideration as a work of art. Cast and credits listings for the film are included, an introduction to the film Ostia – The Death of Pasolini by Peter Christopherson, and brief overview of Pasolini’s career in a biography by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. My copy curiously seemed to have some typesetting problems with any words containing a combination of the letters ‘fl’.
Despite its philosophical and literary content and its considered structure and approach, Salò strives to provoke a gut reaction and, over 30 years after it made such a profound impact on the world of cinema, the film still has the force to shock the viewer with its disturbing, nihilistic vision. The viewer should beware however - this is not a film for the casual viewer or for the merely curious, nor is its extreme imagery likely to arouse or titillate. The most natural reaction to Salò is likely to be outrage and disgust, but one should not take that reaction to be any kind of indication of the quality of the film, since Salò is indeed intended to elicit just such a response. Such an important milestone film in the history of cinema is essential viewing, particularly in this fine edition from BFI which provides a remarkable High Definition transfer and superb context setting features and commentary. In this new light, the more open and willing viewer will find Salò fertile ground to explore the contradictory ideas and complex personality of one of the world’s most interesting filmmakers, but for many that gut reaction might just be the right one.