Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) (Not Rated)
Horrible, unbearable, evil, pornographic, political, masterful, beautiful, fascinating, confused—Pier Paolo Pasolini's final feature has been called many, many things and it embodies each subsequent one of them with more ease than the former. It is a dichotomy of a movie and should never be viewed by any other than the strong of will and stomach. You know a movie is gritty and unusually vile when even the critics you look up warn you of the triggers found within this movie that could sen you into a mental tailspin or to the bathroom, perhaps both.
And yet..."Saló, or the 120 Days in Sodom" is considered to be one of the quintessential Italian movies of modern cinema and it is deemed as 'must-see' on several lists which now seem incomplete with its absence. But make no mistake, you will not be finding this film on many "top 10" lists. Instead, there seems to be some love/hate relationship with "Saló" that people realize. It is too important to ignore and too much itself to be anything less than repulsive.
Branded by many, including Pasolini himself, as a commentary on Fascism, "Saló" begins in Italy in 1944 right as the world is about to crumble in at the close of World War II. Boys and girls are rounded up from their families and even struggling as hard as they can, they are subdued at brought to a house out of sight. From here a group of four rich men come and size them up, literally and figuratively. They are plucked over like apples at a grocery store—felt up and groomed over before any decision is made.
Yet at this point the viewer would still be unaware of what was happening if they hadn't heard anything about the film, which is highly unlikely. This isn't a movie that you just stumble across and, without any knowledge, pop in and start watching. I would wager that everyone watching "Saló" knows exactly what they're getting themselves into.
The boys and girls selected from the preliminary group are taken and placed on a militarized set of buses and cars and taken to an estate in the middle of the country where they are read the rules. They will not engage in any sexual activity besides those acts supplied upon them by their hosts, and they will not cite any religion whatsoever, the punishment for failure of either of these rules could result in the loss of limb or life.
Somehow, even with this, the viewer is still trying to understand what they are about to witness as far as sexually nightmarish carnage is concerned. Don't worry, that comes later.
Still, it should be said that "Saló" is not a film about its hundreds of degradations of the human body and mind. It is not anti-fetish or anti-sadomasochistic, yet it appear as both on many occasions. Instead, the film stretches itself and covers a wider area: social commentary and this is actually where the film fails, not the sex scenes.
There may be spoilers ahead...warning.
If the film is really about Fascism, then it beats this thought of oppression into the viewer's head mercilessly. We understand from the scene in which the young adults are stripped down and forced to walk on all fours, woofing like dogs and begging for food (one of the men places metal nails inside a piece of bread for his own amusement), that the power of the oppressor is something that Pasolini abhors with such a burning passion. And yet this scene is tame in comparison to some of the more gory instances portrayed on screen later.
By now, you may just see this review as a list of the many times you can be sure to be squirming and nauseated; but "Saló" deserves more than that. It is a fascinating work and it is inspired in moments. Pasolini's treatment of the giddy oppression towards the twisting of sexuality is nothing if not chilling and here the film see its greatest success.
We know more about the torturers than we know about their victims, who all but remain nameless for the entire movie. It would be pointless to list the characters, because Pasolini polarizes them into two groups: those with power and those without.
As an audience it would be so much easier for Pasolini to let us empathize with the victims, a little string-pulling music and there you have a hard to watch but compelling movie. He makes no such move. We rarely have time to know the victims, and then our insightful view of them is often skewed.
Shot with an intensity unrivaled in any modern-day movie, "Saló" knows how to get under your skin. It will haunt you; but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Again, you should know what you're getting into and then watch the film.
What remains after the shock factor is a movie made by a man struggling with his own identity as a human and a filmmaker and his violent hatred to the government crushing down on him.
It's sensationally unashamed and bloodily circular. Be prepared for the descent.
Posted by Micah Jones