Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

(Salo O Le 120 Giornate Di Sodoma)

Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Produced by Alberto De Stefanis, Antonio Girasante & Alberto Grimaldi

Starring Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti, Caterina Boratto, Elsa Di Giorgi, Helene Surgere, Sonia Saviange


First up, an incredible debt of gratitude to Alan for allowing me to cover this one, as I doubt there are too many individuals out there who have the stamina to endure repeated viewings of what is (no questions asked) Pasolini's most controversial work. Whilst it is definitely not a horror film in the conventional sense, its subject matter, and thematic elements, make it more challenging than ANY genre film committed to celluloid. This is NOT a film for genre buffs weaned on slasher films, nor is it a film easily pegged within the "easy" confine of conventional horror. What it is, is a scathing attack on the kind of fascism that Pasolini experienced first hand during his formative years, a faithful rendition of one of the Marquis De Sade's diabolical fantasies, and a savage indictment of the human animal unfettered against the "moral freedom" of war. It requires a strong stomach, an open mind, and a knowledge of the climate it stems from. Without the armament of these notions, one's understanding of Pasolini's swansong will be clouded by the cavalcade of depravity its narrative presents.

Those with a knowledge of history will know the name "Salo" all too well, for it was the Northern Italian Fascist Republic where Mussolini last held power in the final year or so of World War II. It was a region most notable for the unconscionable murder and mutilation of thousands upon thousands who did not conform to his dictatorial ideals. Accordingly, it was not without higher purpose that Pasolini set his film amidst the very sites that such horrendous crimes were committed in the name of Fascism. He had spent his youth growing up in the region, thus holding a deeply personal place in his psyche. It was the perfect setting for his adaptation of De Sade's "120 Days Of Sodom", transposed to the Italy of 1945, hence fueling his vilification of Fascistic ideology and the absolute corruption that power delivers during war-time.

Pasolini's quartet of monstrous corruption are given unspeakable vessel within his four leads; a Duke (Bonacelli), a Bishop (Cataldi), a Magistrate (Quintavalle) and a President (Valletti). Four authority figureheads that represent the total corruption that Pasolini strove to portray. Under the guise of war, these despicably depraved individuals procure sixteen teenagers, eight boys, and eight girls, with the sole intent of playing out De Sade's perverse fantasies as a means of expressing their all-encompassing power. Amidst a backdrop of pornographic stories, that run the gamut of pedophiliac perversion to scatological depravity, divulged by a trio of aging prostitutes, these men and their soldiers subject their child-like (read: innocence) victims to all manner of degrading and debilitating sexual humiliation and subjugation. Vaginal sex is prohibited under penalty of death, sodomy and homosexual intercourse become de-riguer in their captives daily lives. Their young prisoners are fed feces, and forced to urinate into the waiting mouths of their captors. Come the announcement that war has come to an end, their captives are summarily executed in an unrelentingly graphic passage of sickening mutilation, whilst the men take turns watching the carnage from a coldly distanced vantagepoint. There is no relief for the victims, nor the viewer, the orgiastic display of absolute power almost impossible to stomach.

As anyone reading this may have gathered by now, Pasolini's "Salo" is not a work of ridiculous (and safe) exploitation, it is a heavy-handed though powerful political statement, unflinching in the presentation of its message, and once seen impossible to forget. Pasolini has transposed metaphorically political brutality for sexual brutality (yes, the words of James Ferman, but never a truer word spoken), his Fascist ciphers doling out unfathomable "punishment" to their imprisoned pillars of innocence, hammering home the old adage that "absolute power corrupts absolutely" with ferocious force. Many will have extreme difficulties comprehending, or stomaching, the images that Pasolini serves his audience as he derides and capitulates the horrors of Fascism. The larger film community will be profoundly offended by the graphic horrors and dehumanising degradation on display herein. If abhorrent sexual perversion such as scatology and coprophilia offend you, do NOT view this film. Signora's Castelli, Maggi and Vaccarri's stories WILL offend certain viewers, as will the unmitigated sadism and relish with which the primary characters defile their youthful captives. In short, this is not a film for the commercial horror enthusiast. It is far too depressing, fatalistic, nihilistic, and devastating in tone to be pigeonholed so glibly. As much as I hate to say it, if in doubt, do not view this film.

BFI's disc has come under some criticism from some factions, though I am loathe to contemplate the viewer that insists this film be presented anamorphically enhanced and aurally remixed in a Dolby format. Certainly, the film is a bonafide dark classic of cinema, but the remastering it assuredly requires may just detract from the horrors it wallows in. It frightens me that some people are more concerned with a pristine image clarity and sumptuous rechannelling of Ennio Morricone's score, than addressing the thematic elements of the feature itself. Sure, BFI's disc is a little disappointing in its presentation, but even bog-standard VHS could do little to diminish the phenomenal power of this work.

From a technical aspect, this R2 disc does manage to do justice to its source materials (that admittedly are not in the best of shape). Colours are muted, detail is soft in many passages, and print damage is apparent. However, being a product of the digital age, it is a perfectly acceptable rendition of such a disturbing work, albeit a foreign language film nearly thirty years old. Are we really so demanding of the medium that we decry everything that does not measure up to the standards of current blockbusters from major studios? Lest we all forget so soon, a decade ago films such as this would never have seen wide release at all! We were all scouring car-boot sales for nth generation bootlegs, and not complaining! My argument is that genre fans should be a little more forgiving than the spoilt generation we are rapidly becoming now that DVD has arrived en-masse on our doorstep´┐Ż

My apologies, I am ranting. Regardless, print damage and age of materials aside, this disc is definitely a serviceable representation of Pasolini's film. It is presented in its original language (Italian), with non-removable subtitles that appear format generated (they are unpresent in forward-scan mode). Additionally the feature is letterboxed at a theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85, which (correct me if I'm wrong!) may be possibly over-matted from the European standard of 1.66. Compositions appear correct throughout, so I may be mistaken in this regard. The audio is relatively free of distortion, though sometimes shows up the limitations of the original optical analogue monaural track. This is really a minor quibble though. There are precious few extras included, but with the director murdered the year of its release I am confounded as to what could be included. A small poster gallery and director's introduction read by actor Nicholas Grace are additions we collectors are fortunate to have. The film alone, uncut and uncensored, was satisfactory enough for this little black duck!

It is an enlightened era wherein the BBFC will pass a film of the extraordinary power of Pasolini's "Salo" completely uncut for widespread release, thus BFI's disc edition is something of a landmark for British cinema enthusiasts. Unlike the film it is often compared to, TF Mous's "Man Behind The Sun", it is not a simple parade of wartime atrocities held together in a rudimentary narrative. It is a monstrous, brutal attack on the devastating terrors of war, and the levels of depravity that man will sink to once he is unrestrained by the accepted guidelines of a lawful society. It is horror in its purest form, and far more challenging than anything else you may ever see. It is not a film, if purchased, that you will rush to watch again and again. Instead, its ferocious power will dare you to slip it in your player again, and you will resist, as once seen you may find the task of escaping its horrific images and elements an impossible one.

Review by M.C.Thomason

Released by BFI & MGM/UA
Classified 18 (uncut) - Region 2
Running time - 116m
Ratio - Widescreen 1.85
Audio - Dolby digital 1.0 (Italian)
Extras :
Director's introduction; Poster gallery