Taking place in an isolated mansion located in the Fascist-controlled Italian Republic of Salo in 1944, four powerful libertines – the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate and the President – abduct eighteen teenagers, 9 boys, 9 girls, to indulge in four months (120 days) of debauchery and sadism with.
In-between storytelling sessions wherein three elderly prostitutes entertain both captives and sadists with lascivious tales of child abuse designed to set the mood, the four pillars of society put their slaves through harrowing acts of degradation until an eventual excruciating death.
Pasolini’s final masterpiece is a retelling of de Sade’s degenerate tour de force The 120 Days of Sodom, though various other literary giants are also referenced throughout. Dante’s Divine Comedy is used as inspiration for the segmented format, the film being broken into four sections: the ante-inferno, Circle of Manias, Circle of Shit and Circle of Blood. There’s also frequent nods and winks to Pound, Proust, Baudelaire, Nietzsche and Dada.
As a youngster exploring the depths of video nasties and extreme cinema, Salo was seen as the ultimate. Stories circulated of people puking, passing out, and being unable to make it all the way through. When I finally got the chance to see it, I must admit I was slightly let down. Yes, there’s shit-eating, eye-gouging, rape and numerous other paraphilias, and of course the infamous torture-ridden finale. But it was all set within this arthouse framework that made it feel somehow “highbrow” to me, not lowdown and filthy enough.
Now, as a “grown-up” years later, I can more thoroughly appreciate the impact it had, and still has. Not only concerning the confronting shock value but the exploration of themes such as political corruption, abuse of power, the human commodity and the role of the spectator. Pasolini was fiercely anti-authoritarian and opposed capitalism and what rampant mass culture and consumerism was doing to traditional Italian culture and age old values, these are dominant themes in Salo.
Yet despite all the depravity and allegorical statements there’s also a perversely comic element present, chiefly manifest in the role of the President (played to perfection by the late Aldo Valletti) with his lazy eye and literal shit-eating grin, he’s truly a memorable character that induces queasy giggles and groans.
Salo is a film everyone should see at least once. An absolute must own at $10 on DVD and $20 on Blu-Ray you should get this now. NZ has been waiting years for a local release and this is a great alternative to the very expensive Criterion release.
- Open Your Eyes – A newly created on set 20 minute full colour documentary shot in 1974 by Journalist and Pasolini expert Gideon Bachmann. Mostly consists of on-set interviews with a few actors and footage of Pasolini filming the torture sequences in which I cannot believe on previous viewings I never noticed they are wearing massive fake cocks.
- Walking With Pasolini – A 20 minute documentary with BBC archive footage of Pasolini and interviews with Neil Bartlett, Roberto Purvis, David Forgacs and Noam Chomsky. An insightful extra in which interviewees discuss their opinions of the themes in Salo.
- Fade to Black – 23 minute documentary including interviews with Bertolluci, Breillat, John Maybury and David Forgacs.
- Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die – An hour documentary that looks at the life and death of Pasolini. Although not terribly insightful it has interviews with director and literary friends as well as actors and interviews with Laura Betti who also reads Pasolini’s poetry.
- Ostia – A 25 minute film by Julian Cole about the death of Pasolini featuring Derek Jarman.
- Ostia Music Video – Also included is a music video for Coil’s track Ostia (The Death of Pasolini). Shot by Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson of Throbbing Gristle on location in his adopted home of Bangkok, it essentially recreates the scenario of Pasolini’s death-by-rent-boy using Thai rent boys.