Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, is a legendary piece of cinema, mainly due to its shocking, depraved imagery and subject matter. This 1976 film took the Marquis de Sade’s book 120 Days of Sodom and re-purposed and re-positioned it in 1944’s Fascist Italy, where four wealthy male libertines mentally, physically and sexually torture 18 young boys and girls, culminating in a brutal end.
Rape, murder, s**t eating, sadism, political and social commentary… Salò pulls no punches, though it often gives the audience the “benefit” of being slightly removed from the proceedings through a number of wide angles and voyeur-friendly compositions. In that sense you’re reminded that you’re not actually stuck in this experience, though the fact that you’re watching is commentary itself.
Having said that, and as challenging as it is to watch once, Salò is a film that truly benefits from multiple viewings. The first time through, it’s hard to shake the shock and disgust that much of the actions and imagery brings on. It’s hard to say that you could ever get used to people eating s**t, but the reaction isn’t so severe the second time around. This allows you to really see the film and think about what it’s trying to say, if anything.
Besides, as brutal as Salò was in 1976, it pales in comparison to much of the videos and pictures that exist on the internet today (“Two Girls, One Cup,” for example), which was maybe the voyeuristic point that the film was trying to make all along. Only in today’s society, such depraved voyeurism isn’t stuck within the context of cinema or art, but just there because people will actually look at it voluntarily.
To that end, for all of the myths and legends of the depravity of Salò that at times overshadowed its cinematic contribution, now is probably the best time ever to truly appreciate it; or at least be frightened by it for entirely different, far too realistic reasons. And if you’re going to appreciate a film, might as well watch a Criterion edition.
In this case, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is available as a Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, complete with all the bells and whistles one would expect. Besides the film itself, the set comes with a booklet loaded with essays about the film (far more intriguing than my own interpretations) and three documentaries about the film: “Salò”: Yesterday and Today, Fade to Black and The End of “Salò.”
The documentaries are where the beast is truly slain in regards to any implied evil by the film or the filmmaker, because you see Salò for what it truly is: a movie. Watching Pier Paolo Pasolini set up shots and camera angles to trick the audience into thinking they’re seeing something they’re not, or listening as the actors joke around on set, grounds the entire production. For a moment, it doesn’t feel quite as severe an experience. It’s just a movie, after all.