Salo (Italy/France, 1975)

April 09, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Salo Poster

The first thing to state about Salo, the oft-banned and infamous final movie of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, is that it has a purpose beyond depicting a catalog of taboos and grotesqueries rarely seen on screen. With Salo, which has a secondary title of "The 120 Days of Sodom" and is loosely based on a work of the Marquis de Sade, Pasolini has constructed an elaborate allegory that uses 1944-45 fascism in Italy to represent all the ills of the modern world (circa 1975) where corruption and decadence have gained unlimited power. Nothing seen in Salo is intended to be taken literally; viewers are to look at it as an intentionally grim and repulsive physical metaphor for a universal moral and spiritual condition. The concept has merit. The execution does not.

Processing Salo is a difficult experience. It does not work the way a normal movie does. Instead of inviting collaboration between audience and filmmakers, it encourages distance. Salo does not tell a story; it offers images. I have given it a "star" rating based on the usual criteria (one of which is how strongly I would recommend it), but in a way that's a cheat. As a traditional motion picture, Salo is an abject failure, but it never seeks to be just another movie. Really, it should be given a rating of "n/a."

Over the years, Salo has been various described as "unwatchable" and "the most obscene movie ever made." The party responsible for the latter comment needs to see more films. Even in relatively mainstream fare, shock filmmaking has come a long way in four decades. In fact, John Waters had already gone farther than Pasolini in Pink Flamingos, which was released in 1972. At least in Salo, the consumed excrement is fake; in the Waters movie, it is real. Futhermore, there is nothing in Salo that could not have been seen in one of many of the exploitation films that dotted the cinematic landscape during the 1970s and 1980s. The sex is all simulated and decidedly non-erotic; there is not a hardcore scene to be found. Salo's reputation is overblown, probably because it is the product of a respected filmmaker. No one would mistake this for a Grindhouse movie.

Nevertheless, Salo is difficult to watch - not because of shock value or perceived depravity, but because it's boring through repetition with a point that doesn't justify 100 minutes of unpleasant tedium. Pasolini is so intent upon bludgeoning audiences with the allegory that he provides little more than one revolting over-the-top scene after another. Characters and narrative are largely absent. The sole reason to continue watching Salo is to see how far Pasolini will go. The movie is the equivalent of the carnival geek show or the roadside pileup. It is human nature to stare. The only element of Salo that can be said to have value is Ennio Morricone's score (that should come as no surprise).

The setup is simple: four men known only by their titles - The Duke (Paolo Bonacelli), The Bishop (Giorgio Cataldi), The Magistrate (Umberto P. Quinatvalle), and The President (Aldo Valletti) - gather in an opulent villa in Salo, Italy during the waning days of the waning days of World War II. (Salo was the headquarters for Mussolini's puppet Italian Social Republic from 1943 through 1945.) Their purpose is to make real whatever perversions they can imagine, and they have forced a group of naked young men and women to participate. While many of their fantasies are sexually deviant, some are acts of pure sadism. A naked woman is forced to grovel before consuming cheese that has been spiked with nails. The inside of her mouth is ripped apart, she screams, and blood runs out. Other instances of torture are also represented: a tongue is cut out, an eye is gouged from its socket, a woman is scalped, and so forth.

Nothing about Salo is subtle, least of all the naming of the four main characters. The director's ire is widespread, with The Duke representing bourgeoisie European nobility, the Bishop standing in for organized religion, The Magistrate being the courts and legal system, and The President representing "democratic" leaders. In Pasolini's view, power doesn't simply corrupt, it corrupts quickly and completely.

Watching Salo is a little like watching a catalog of filmed excesses. The acting, much of which is by non-professionals, is campy and better suited to satire than serious drama. In fact, while I was watching Salo, two titles came to mind: Caligula and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I don't mean to imply Salo is like either of them in a general sense, but its affinity for the repugnant is similar to that of the often derided Penthouse-funded "epic" and its over-the-top antics would be at home on a double-bill with the midnight audience's favorite "bad movie." There are also scenes depicting absurdities that wouldn't be out of place in Monty Python skits: three of the main characters cross-dressing in preparation for their "marriage," a detailed discussion about which of a number of naked boys and girls has the perfect ass, and a twisted dance number (or at least a piece of one).

When Salo was first released, critics and audiences couldn't figure out what to make of it. Some, seizing upon the political themes, hailed it as a masterpiece. Others, recognizing that there was nothing beyond the message except a depressing series of misanthropic scenarios, derided it. Salo was banned is some territories. Nearly 40 years later, the reputation lingers like a distant stench. It has become a "cult classic," but has not received a mass critical re-thinking. Lofty left-wing ideals do not in any way make this appealing or engaging, nor do they give heft to something this soulless, hollow, and pretentious.

Prior to Salo, Pasolini had constructed a solid reputation with movies like The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. Salo was to be his swansong and two follow-ups were never made; he was murdered under mysterious circumstances shortly after filming was completed. He did not live long enough to bask in the international furor that accompanied Salo's release. Without the director's voice to accompany it, Salo has had to speak for itself over the years and, although it is loud, what it has to say is discordant and unpleasant.

The question of Salo's position in motion picture history has nothing to do with whether the subject matter is repugnant but whether the film serves a purpose beyond presenting lurid, revolting images. Movies like The War Zone (to name one) can be morally reprehensible, almost impossible to watch, and incredibly powerful. Salo, however, is forceful only in making the viewer want to turn away. Its themes are so obvious and crudely drawn as to be almost insulting to an intelligent, sophisticated viewer and its content seems designed to appeal to base instincts. The nudity, sexual violence and depravity, and sadomasochistic content are present not because they offer a unique or compelling perspective but because they are impossible to ignore. Salo wants to be seen as great art, but it is closer to exploitation. And it's not even good exploitation because of its fundamental dishonesty in pretending to offer something more than it does. Art should say something. The only statement ultimately made by Salo is "Stay Away!"

Salo (Italy/France, 1975)

Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: 1977-10-03
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: In Italian with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1