It's 1944 in the Nazi controlled northern-Italian statelet of “Salò”. A triumvirate of high ranking fascist dignitaries prepare to indulge their darkest fantasies over three days of decadence and debauchery in an isolated villa . The countryside has been scoured for virginal youths on the cusp of adulthood to be defiled. Ritualised sodomy, rape, coprophagia, torture, mutilation, and murder is accompanied by the haunting piano playing and recounting of increasingly debased tales by a collection of scarlet women. And thats the perversely simple conceit of “Salò”. Glorified exploitation movie? Trash peddled as art or a daring exploration of the nature of evil? This is an complex work that defies critical pigeonholing given its sheer rawness.
Pier Paolo Pasolini in his updating of De Sade’s novel shoots the grim proceedings with a hypnotic air of detachment, a cold visual style that creates a miasma of hopelessness. The opulent refinement of the palazzo’s interior sharply contrasts the beastliness of the acts committed within; an allusion to the barbarism masquerading behind a façade of bourgeois civilisation. The central performances from Paolo Bonacelli, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle and Aldo Valetti portraying the trio of degenerate “libertines” (quite possibly the most wretched characters ever committed to film!) are chilling in their dead-eyed nihilism. Pasolini's use of actual adolescents for victims makes for a thoroughly disturbing spectacle as they are sexually abused and made forced to consume their own feces.
“Salò” can be seen as a vitriolic condemnation of the tenets of fascism and more pertinently Nazism with its idolatry of the flesh, the devaluation of human beings according to simplistic biological characteristics with some of supposed greater worth than others (The youngsters are picked according to their virility and level of physical attractiveness). One could interpret the bizarre rituals conducted by the villains such as the “The Circle of Madness”, 'The Circle of Shit' (Yum!), and 'The Circle of Blood” as parallels to Nazism’s indoctrination rites whilst the music of Karl Orff (regarded by his detractors as the man who next to Wagner provided the soundtrack of the Third Reich.) plays over the wireless.
For the evil perpetrators there is no comeuppance, no vengeful retribution meted out. In the final sequence each receives a handjob from one of the handsome young house guards while watching the torture and killing of their victims from afar via a pair of spy glasses. This closing episode is undoubtedly the most disturbing of the narrative, shot without sound save the haunting strains of "Carmina Burana" and seen from a distant binocular perspective as the youths are carved up as a prelude to final execution. The viewer feels a sense of complicity and helplessness as these vile acts are perpetrated, simultaneously a voyeur and appalled witness.
“Salò” is unarguably one of the most distressing films ever made; an endurance test of ugly bloodshed and sexual deviancy. Whereas previous works in Pasolini’s canon are characterised by a bawdy celebration of life alá “The Decameron” and “Canterbury Tales”, this last work before his murder is beyond bleak. Regardless of whether one sees fit to laud it as daring high art or condemn as obscenity for the sake of obscenity, one thing is certain; the power of “Salò” cannot be denied
AKA: Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma)