Infamovies: Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom


Copied over from my Facebook on inception of the blog. Originally written 1/9/2010

What’s the deal? Loads of Sadism – and in this case, literally.

Still Banned? Kind of…but no.

WARNING: Spoilers and NSFW content below.

Background

Heard of Sadism? A sadist derives pleasure (usually sexual) from the deliberate pain, misfortune, humiliation and suffering that they inflict upon a person. A sadist gets off on causing someone pain. The term comes from a happy little fellow called the Marquis de Sade, a libertine who lived in the late 1700s and was jailed for being a bit of a prick on an epic scale.

The Marquis was unusual in his sexual desires – basically he wanted it to be as horrible, violent, degrading and unimaginably cruel as possible. While he was locked away in the Bastille, he wrote a little book calledThe 120 Days of Sodom. Amongst other things, the Marquis had a particular penchant for sodomy, so its appropriate that the book is named after the practice’s namesake.

n 1975, Pier Palo Pasolini released his filmic adaptation of the novel – Salo. The only real differences are that a) the film takes place in 1940s Italy as opposed to 18th century France, and that de Sade’s novel (if you can call it that) is incomplete – the first section of his novel is written in great detail, the rest of it in dot points and footnotes.

Needless to say, the novel is full of the worst kinds of debauchery and atrocities, and it’s supremely unpleasant reading.

Salo was reviled on its release, with many calling it depraved, obscene and beyond offensive. Others defended it. Pasolini maintained that it was an attack on fascism, and an analysis of the abuses of power held by small numbers of people. The Criterion Collection DVD opens with a foreword by Pasolini, defending the film; he was clearly aware of the controversy it would create, as he wrote this before the film’s release. He had to have done so, seeing as he was also murdered shortly before the film’s release.

Salo

OFLC

Salo was banned in many countries, and Australia was one of them. It stayed banned from 1976 until 1993, when the ban was lifted and it received a cinema release (which is where this review’s main picture comes from) before getting banned once again a few months later. The ban was once again lifted 1997, then banned again in 1998. As of 2010, it has been re-allowed for a DVD release. It’s only allowed because of the DVD – the press note from the OFLC stipulates that the film is only allowable due to its special features, which place the film in context. Screening the film in public without the added special features violates the R18+ rating given to it; essentially the film itself is still banned, but the DVD is not.

Plot

In the dying days of Fascist Italy, four powerful men gather together. They are a bishop, a duke, a judge and a president. I’m not going to be referring to them as such, as this doesn’t inform their characters at all – they are just men of power, and they are used identically, regardless of their professions. They realise the Allied forces will soon take control of the nation, and that the grasp on their power will soon slip from their hands. So they decide to have a last hurrah and abduct 18 young people, 9 girls, 9 boys.

They also hire 4 men based on the size of their penises. In de Sade’s novel, these men are given the title of “cockmongers” and “fuckers”- their sole purpose is to have a large penis and utilise it. The men also hire four elderly prostitutes from brothels to tell stories. They then marry each other’s daughters, and take their collected company to a private palace, where they will then have their fun.

They then lay down the rules to their abductees. Every night, they will gather in ‘the hall of orgies’ and listen to tales told by the prostitutes. We in fact only see one prostitute telling the stories. They are all based on her experiences with debased men, who made her do horrible things. Well…we see them as horrible – she and the four men, and some of the fuckers and private army seem to really get off on them. Which is actually the point – she’s telling these stories to the men to inspire the subsequent orgies with their abductees.

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The storytelling prostitute. Whorytelling?

And the main bulk of the film is this – lots of horrible, perverse, degrading sex inflicted on the abductees, indiscriminately. All the men and women of the ruling side are bisexual, and they make their abductees have sex with whoever they (the ruling side) choose to make them have sex with. There’s basically two rules – do what they tell you to do, and no one’s allowed to have private sex.

Now I’d like to point out here the saying “One man’s perversion is another man’s fetish.” I accept this – people have their own quirks and likes, and some of them seem extreme and repulsive to other people. To each his or her own, I say. But not in this case. There is no way on earth that anyone, no matter how depraved, could find what you see here titillating or erotic. Again, this is kind of the point. The four ruling men watch these horrendous scenes of torture and degradation and often whip it out and have a beat, or pick up another abductee and make them do the work for them.

I’m not going to do a scene-by-scene rundown, as there’s no real point – it’s just scene after scene of sexual degradation. There are a few notable scenes, one of which has become quite infamous:

At one point, the men chain all the abductees onto leashes and march them through the palace like dogs, naked. They then make them sit, whimper and beg like a dog for scraps of food. The abductees do it, the ruling men beat off and laugh at them. Then one of them puts some nails in a piece of bread and offers it to a girl, who eats it, screaming and bleeding from the mouth.

Later, while listening to the storyteller, one of the men makes a girl grab his crotch and work her over. Oh, something I should have mentioned — all the girls are virgins. Being virginal, and quite sheltered (apparently) this girl knows nothing about giving hand jobs, and they loudly berate her for this, then bring out a mannequin for her to practice on.

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About three seconds later, they produce his mannequin wang. That’s not a joke.

A later scene has them all listening to the storyteller again, and one girl suddenly becomes overwhelmed by the tale and breaks down. One of the men, infuriated at the interruption, proceeds to take a crap on the floor, give the girl a spoon and make her eat it. The storyteller is disgusted at the girl for being distressed at the opportunity to eat “such a delicacy,” and the storyteller regales the room with her own stories of coprophilia.

Later, all the abductees and the ruling men gather to a banquet of baked shit. They are served it up, and they eat it – the ruling side with glee, the abductees with horror and revulsion. Finally, when the film has had enough of making people vomit in the aisles, they decide to end it. All through the film, any of the abductees who break the rules (i.e. talk out of turn, try to escape, act in horror at what they’re being forced to do) have their names written in a book. They are then separated from the abductees who haven’t broken the rules, and taken out into a courtyard. The ruling men and the abductees who have obeyed then watch as the other abductees are tortured, raped or executed, or any combination of those three.

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To follow: nastiness.

There’s nipple and genital burning, scalping, hangings, shootings – and the ruling men and their newly-formed libertines (the abductees who obeyed, and have now come to enjoy such sights) all watch and rejoice, often masturbating at the sights and horrors before them.

Then the film ends with two of the soldiers in the private army dancing together.

Review

This is a vile movie. It’s reprehensible, horrible and disgusting. Pasolini and all the other pretentious wankers out there can try and fob it off as art, but that’s bullshit. This is an excuse to have horrible things filmed and depicted, and I was really depressed when I finished watching it.

Let’s analyse how this might be art. Pasolini describes it as an attack on fascism. OK – there’s an opportunity to read it as such – there’s a clear ruling elite who have been given too much power. They’re forcing people to do things against their will for their own benefit and it shows them as nasty men. They’re drunk on power, and when they’re given total control, horrible horrible things happen.

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And if they weren’t crazy before…

Yeah we know these men are doing horrible things, and therefore fascists do horrible things in allegorical comparison, but there’s nothing more to this film than the horrible things! Yes we get it – fascists are shit eaters. The only other thing I can read into it is one scene, in which one of the ruling men has sex with one of his guards, alone in bed. This goes against their own rules, but it shows how people with power get to break the rules and get away with it.

The major problem I have with this movie is what it says about sex and sexuality. Pasolini was openly gay, and the revelation of such forced him to move from his home town to Rome. There are many who say he created this film to get his rocks off – but I hope to god that isn’t true, given what’s on offer (with the exception of the scene mentioned above with the ruling man and his guard, which seems pretty conventional sex, especially considering what else is in the movie).

The sex in Salo is nothing but abnormal and torturous, and it revels in showcasing the free-for-all sexuality of the ruling elite. The ruling men are introduced to us, marrying of their daughters to the other men. Then, the first actual sexual activity we see is one of them begging one of the “cockmongers” to penetrate him – in the context of the scene, it is done to show this ruling man as obscene and perverse.

There is a brilliant documentary called The Celluloid Closet which documents the history of homosexuality and bisexuality as presented on film throughout the 20th Century. The main thing it tells us, is that until the mid 80s, homosexuality was an easy cue to suggest that the characters were thematic monsters. Salo, born of the 70s takes that notion and turns it up to 11, and makes its aberrant sexuality monstrous and horrible. It suggests that homosexuality and bisexuality are inherently disturbing – a horrible statement on its own, let alone from an openly gay man.

Understandably banned?

YES! Yes yes yes yes yes!

…but also no. In terms of its tone, its content, message and themes – yes, this movie is beyond offensive, beyond degrading, and its more than understandably banned.

But, in terms of measurable content, the violence is always shot from afar, it’s relatively bloodless – the girl who eats the nails only has a trickle from her mouth, and there is a scene where a girl is scalped – this is the only real blood in the film, and the scene where the boy gets his eye gouged out is gory, but bloodless. Those who would want to see this film as provocative art should be able to see it, as the actual depicted violence is not beyond extreme.

I do think its an absolute sham ruling of the OFLC to allow this film in Australia because of DVD extras. Not a sham in that they allowed it, but in that they gave such a proviso. They should have re-allowed the film singularly, not dependent on a featurette.

Overall

A piece of unmitigated garbage that I can’t wait to never see again.

N.B: I consider this to be the single worst film I’ve ever seen. I hate it so much that it nearly makes me re-think my anti-censorship stance. Begrudgingly, I support its R18+ rating, but I have never hated a movie so much as I have hated Salo. I will never watch it again.

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