So you might think this was something put together “Spur of the moment” or made as a filler episode…quite the opposite. I spent nearly a year and a half planning the perfect way to tackle “Salo” and I feel that my musical rendition was the best possible response I could have made. Given that Passolini’s entire filmography was dedicated to challenging authoritarianism and facism in all it’s thoughts and flavours, it seems actually quite offensive to constructively deconstruct Salo in my usual “Media” led style. so I decided here to tackle absurdism with absurdism. I’ve no regrets. as I mention in my youtube description for this review; “I’ve been doing this now for nearly 3 years…Let me have just one week where I have a bit of ‘Off the beat and path’ fun.” Normal service resumes next week. But if your ABSOLUTELY desperate for my full thoughts/feelings and a deconstruction of this film, well…here’s my thoughts structured a bit more thoughtfully…
1975’s “Salo (The 120 Days of Sodom)” is a truly Nihilistic picture. The kind of film that only really comes around once in a generation of filmmaking. This film revels in its own filth and perversion and gleefully explores violence, mutilation and the class structure in such a way that feels surprisingly fresh for a film that was made in the mid 1970’s about events taking place in the mid 1940’s. A lot has been written and spoken about regarding this picture. Some dismiss it as simply exploitation cinema dressed up as a pretentious art film. Others; choose to see more meaning in it’s themes and within the morality of it’s main characters. I could regurgitate other peoples opinions on the subject of this film ad-verbatim. But Im sure you’ve all seen at least a couple of reviews about this movie in the past, So im just going to do it my way.
The film is set in late 1944/ early 1945 in fascist occupied northern Italy. It’s nearing the end of world war two and most of this film is focussed on a small village that is on the verge of being captured by the allies. This is bad news for the fascists who are highly likely to be executed for the crimes they have committed during the war. As such they decide not to go quietly into the abyss. But rather 4 of the wars larger offenders (Here known as: “The Duke”, “The Bishop”, “The Magistrate” and “The President”) decide to hold one last impulse fuelled bingefest before there inevitable demise. They all agree to marry each others daughters in order to protect their assets going forwards and then; using a mixture of soldiers and hired militia, they head into a nearby village and kidnap as many teenage boys and girls as they can find (Quite often murdering their families in the process) these teenagers are then assessed and based on their appearance and “Assets” 9 teenage boys and 9 teenage girls are chosen. These teens are then transferred to well out into the countryside (One of the teenage boys is shot to death trying to escape while being transported) to a stately manor alongside a few Madam’s from local brothels and a skeleton serving staff.
It’s here where the bulk of the films events will take place. The rules are simple: anything is permitted to the “Big 4” they can do what they want, say what they want and literally get away with murder if they want. No one is coming to save the teens and they make it clear that it’s at the big 4’s discretion as to whether they live or die. They list Incest, Adultery and Sodomy as just a handful of the things that they would be interested in getting away with. If the teens refuse to co-operate, are found to be enjoying themselves or having sex with other teens, or if they mention religion in any way shape or form. they’ll be put on a punishment list (To be dished out on the final day of the events) Killed, or raped and tortured to death. A basic schedule is put together with the day starting at 6am with the Madams telling the filthiest and most perverse stories they can to help turn the “Big 4” on and enflame their imagination to help get the sex and violence going. Then Lunch is served at 12pm at which point everything post 12pm is basically orgies, dirty parlour games and violence until bed time…and even then it doesn’t necessarily stop.
Basically; what we’re watching here is an hour and 56 minutes of 18 teenagers slowly getting murdered and fucked to death split into 3 acts (Known as circles)that encapsulates either 120 days or 3(Ish) days (Depending on how you look at this movie; I personally don’t think 18 already breadline level teenagers could survive the conditions laid out in this movies T’s & C’s for 120 days solid…and a 3 day non stop orgy bender sounds way cooler than 120 days of tepid torture. Happy to be wrong though on that one. What separates this movie from the other exploitation films that have similar themes however. Is, in setting up this act structure we’re granted deeper access to our characters, their motivations, what drives them and fascism in general. Salo is designed to make you uncomfortable because it challenges a fundamental societal rule which is the idea that you just cant do what you want. We’re raised to accept that there are consequences for our actions and that via social constructs there is somehow a moralistic requirement to protect the innocent and not cause distress. We’re taught that this is a respectable trait. In my opinion; Salo sets out to ask the question “Why?” and it does so by using Fascism as a “Launchpad to debauchery.”
The Films Writer and Director Pier Paolo Pasolini was a staunch anti-fascist and was quite active in challenging fascism, destroying it where possible and it’s heavily rumoured to this day that his murder in 1975 was at the hands of multiple fascist groups. Indeed the basic idea of fascism is that there are a select few who are effectively in total control of the majority of the public. They attempt total control as a means to guide and shape society into the image they want, often at the omission of facts or evidence. They don’t deal well with opposition because why live with opposition when it’s easier to just remove them from the frame all together? With Salo; Pasolini shows the descent into self-indulgent madness that comes from giving already highly entitled right wing authoritarians the unlimited freedom and control to do whatever they want within an environment that is entirely malleable and controllable to their own twisted and ruthless requirements. And it’s barbaric.
He’s basically created a Terarium-esq experiment In which the 17 teenagers represent the proletariat and these 4 men are the leaders of their own controllable world based within the walls of the mansion house. With a hired militia in place to help keep the peace and ensure their visions and wants are fulfilled, they strong arm their way through the 3 days we see with a sense of arrogance, entitlement and unfiltered nastiness. You witness the cruelness of man’s inhumanity to man through the eyes of right wing fascism. Each act within Salo reveals a deeper level of depravity and relentlessness that; at times, is genuinely harrowing to watch.
Act 1: The Circle of Mania’s shows the fascists testing their new found freedom. Teenagers are beaten and kicked, molested and raped within hours of the day’s commencement. The teens are shown to be replaceable and they’re also shown that the Big 4 will not hesitate to kill them if they don’t comply. This breaks the teen’s spirits and makes them compliant to the plans that are unfolding, Because; If the only way to get out is to comply, well…they’re going to have to comply. Punishments are dished out on the whims of the big 4 throughout the day. An example being when one of the young teenage boys is added to the punishment list because he pulled away when one of the fascists forced him to give a blowjob, but he pulled away just before the fascist “came”. Thus ruining the orgasm. Its horrific. But in this world, the rights to what are punishable acts and what aren’t fall entirely to the fascists.
If the teens don’t comply then of course there must be a punishment. And they will all be judged equally. It also becomes quite apparent in these opening hours that the teens have no idea how to do half of the things that are expected of them by the big 4, so the brothel owner offers to teach the girls at least, how to correctly “Play” with a penis and how to have sex. There’s a lot of talk at this point about vaginal, penile and anal virginity (Here referred to as deflowering) and there’s a tremendous emphasis from the big 4 that deflowering is a “delicacy” and furthermore that the whole point these youths were selected was because they are “Pure” and their defilement is a commodity that these fascists relish. They quite literally get off on the idea that they are going to defile and corrupt the innocence of youth. And this is a strong theme which runs throughout the film right up until the end credits. Quite frequently there are scenes in which one of the big 4 will just run out into a hallway and gratuitously grope 4 or 5 teenage boys and girls in one go. It all adds to the gluttonous themes of binging that are present throughout and the themes of hopelessness and nihilism that hang over this film in an almost smothering fashion.
All of this before I even get into the legalities around that time. this film was set in the 1940’s when Homosexuality in Italy was punishable by death, marriage was the highest level of sanctimony and the long and short of it was that you were a corrupt individual unless you followed the basic nuclear family model of heterosexuality. In the 1970’s homosexuality (And particularly Anal Sex) was highly illegal in Italy and was punishable with imprisonment. It was treated very similarly to Paedophilia and it wasn’t until the 1990’s that the laws would relax on the issue. To this day Italy still has a quite severe problems with Homophobia and Transphobia and the reason lies highly within it’s successive string of right wing governments and silencing and stigmatizing of Gay, trans and minority groups. This film was released in 1975 and was seen as absolutely irreprehensible. Sodomy is highly prominent throughout the film. moreso the image of men enjoying both sodomy and sodomising. The fact that these are people in powerful positions taking advantage of youth caused uproar. Probably one of the films most controversial sequences involves 2 of the teenagers being forced into marriage, they’re deflowered by a brothel madam and a militia soldier respectively and upon the marriage being completed they’re asked to “Consummate” the arrangement. The teens begin to arouse each other at which point the big 4 swoop in and seize the “Consummation” for there own satisfaction. Tarnishing what I suppose is supposed to be a sweet moment of love and denying both teens there “Consummation”. It devalues their marriage and the facists “Get off” at the idea of cuckoldry and Bigamy that has just occurred.
The First act concludes with the teens literally reduced to that of wild and hungry dogs. Stripped naked and forced on leashes into a main hall to eat slices of meat and chunks of bread from the floor, the fascists end the first act by stripping the teens of their humanity. Reducing them to nothing more than animals and commodities there to be exploited, used and disposed of. While desperation will bring back some elements of the teen’s more human qualities. By the close of the circle of manias; They’re broken, compliant and almost entirely defeated.
Act 2 opens the circle of shit, and from here the film descends quite rapidly into abuse and degradation. It transpires that the teenage girls were fed meat during the dog sessions that were specifically tainted. They were instructed to not use the toilets until the next day and then to relieve themselves into a communal sized basin. This shit is then served for lunch during day 2. The “Shit eating banquet” is arguably one of the most memorable scenes in Salo and could be inferred to be a comment on humanity as a race being predisposed to accept lies (In this case represented by the shit) that promise the answers they want to hear over the truth which may not be what they want despite its accuracy. Throughout the scene the fascists repeatedly refuse to acknowledge that they’re eating shit instead referring to it as a “Delicacy” and a “rare item”. Not only this, but they expect the teens to respond in an equal manner. Equally they go to extended lengths to degrade and humiliate the women in particular during this banquet, repeatedly referring to how such beautiful vessels could produce such foul offerings. In essence this is the fascists attempting to further demoralise and undermine the girls. Making them feel dirty, less pure or otherwise trying to break their sense of worth, (Which by extension the fascists would then be able to use to force the girls into further and further destructive and perverse situations.)
Throughout the 2nd circle the girls are repeatedly beaten, abused or forced into embarrassing situations. Golden showers feature as a centre piece of one of the fascists indulgencies and as much as you could infer this to be a submissive request from the fascists as it is the fascists that are being urinated on. Anything that is done to them as a submissive act has been forced by the fascists initially. In many ways making these acts significantly more dominating. When one of the teens sodomises one of the fascists, It could initially be seen as a submissive act on behalf of the fascists until you realise that they’re the ones in control. They’ve requested to be penetrated and they’ll kill the teens if they don’t cooperate. With this in mind, it quickly becomes apparent that the fascists main indulgences are predominantly driven not by base carnal urges but rather through the control and management of the teens they’re abusing specifically. They get a sick kick out of knowing that they have ultimate control over individuals to the point that they can put themselves in a submissive situation and STILL be the dominant force. It’s really quite an extraordinary situation.
Act 3 is the Circle of Blood and acts as this films closing. Another faux wedding is staged as the fascists (In full female wedding regalia) take husbands. This leads to an evening of sodomy in which a tipping point presents itself. One of the teens offers to rat out one of his fellow captives in exchange for leniency or freedom. Intrigued one of the fascists follows the trail and ultimately unveils half a dozen of the teens are breaking rules ranging from practicing Catholicism, to lesbianism, to interracial relationships. This sets up the closing moments of the film. Almost all of the teens are now on the punishment list for misdemeanours of one kind or another. They have all been violated, deflowered and spiritually broken, and as punishment for their crimes they are placed in and around the communal Shit bucket to wallow in their own filth. They’re no longer human. They’re shells of their humanity. With a final cry of anguish from one of the teens the final punishment begins. Each of the fascists has been semi-responsible for a handful of the teenagers since their arrival at the mansion and now those same groups are sent to the garden. Here the teens are mutilated. Branded, burnt, castrated, gang raped, hung, sodomised and brutalised until death. Used and discarded by both Fascists and Militia alike. Their fun is done they revel in the ultimate pleasure of the death not only of the teens but of their secret shame. Knowing that outside of themselves and a handful of the militia that no one will truly know what happened here. They are soon to die too. But ultimately they’ve won in terms of their own pleasures. No one survives Salo ultimately. But that’s no comfort to an audience who has had to sit through it.
What is interesting and definitely worth noting is that this film does dabble quite frequently in absurdism. Actors performances are quite often over the top, melodramatic or highly animated. The brothel owners regularly dance, move their hands in strange ways and in one instance fall back on old cabaret routines to please the fascists. The Big 4 themselves often drift into over the top and almost comedic performances (of particular note is “The President” who decides during one of the lunch sequences while one of the serving girls is being raped, to run around the lunch hall showing his backside and demanding one of the soldiers sodomises him as soon as possible) that’s not to say that these are comedic characters mind. The fascists are distinctly malicious and evil characters. Rather that they delight in their own malice to the point that they feel free to exercise their ultimate power in whatever way they feel. It creates a deeply unsettling quality throughout the film as you can never quite tell if the next strange and odd moment that manifests itself is going to end either in a round of laughter or an atrocity. In fact the only characters that aren’t allowed the indulgence of absurdism are the teens themselves. Though I believe Pasolini did this to further emphasise the gulf in power and control that is created within the mansion. The teens have no power, no control. And the film wants to make it clear that they cannot afford to be jovial or silly. The fascists hold all the cards and as such can afford such luxuries. And this gulf helps to impress further the idea of suffering that these teens are under to the audience.
Even within the cine Pasolini creates a hostile and cold environment. Wide shots and ultra-wide shots are here in abundance. To help create a sense of disconnect, helplessness and isolation for the audience. The idea being that because we as the audience are so far away from the teens visually we feel like we cannot help them, nor can anyone within the film. It’s now a classic technique to help set a sense of hopelessness but for the time it was quite revolutionary. The only times close-ups are used really are in moments of revulsion (Such as the shit eating banquet) or for moments of significance (Such as the torturing scenes or the sequence in which the teens are selected). The madam’s brothel stories tend to also be shot using a mixture of mids and wides. Though this is predominantly due to these sequences foreshadowing events that will be done to the teens later in the film. So I suppose that’s to create a mixture of cold distance while also visually telling the audience that these stories will be important and to pay attention.
Another point to clarify is that the soundtrack is almost entirely diegetic. Barring the films introductory credits, any and all music is played either via stereograms, radio or the mansions pianist (Which usually underpins the madams stories) in general though, there is very little music in this film. Instead it prefers to utilise the cold silence of the countryside estate. There’s no cars, no public walking by, the atrocities committed in this film are usually done in room tone only silence. And as such it’s so much more impactful. Especially with the wide shot visuals. If shooting wide makes this film cold, then shooting it with no soundtrack is positively freezer like. It’s so powerful in creating an uncomfortable atmosphere that it’s almost overwhelming at times.
The only sound that is quite present and I will say is used VERY effectively is that sometimes if you listen very closely you can hear the low drone of airplane engines in the background of some shots. This is a nice psychological tactic on the behalf of the director as it works two fold. It reminds the audience that this is set during wartime and more crucially at the end of the war, and it also indirectly gives the audience a sense of subliminal hope. As we are aware that fascism was defeated in the second world war and those engines remind the audience that that’s imminent. However it’s a double bluff on the part of the director as he’s aware that no one is going to survive this movie. it leads the audience to feel like there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. Which makes the torture finale all the more crushing in terms of its reveal.
Salos release history is incredibly patchy to say the least. It was premiered in 1975 and almost immediately banned in most European countries thereafter. In the UK the film was refused a certificate in 1976 and would only be permitted to be screened upon special written request. Famously an art house film club in Soho screened the film and was raided by the London metropolitan police. The film remained banned in the UK until 2000 when it was finally given a certificate to be released uncut. More recently in 2011 the BFI released Salo in a highly comprehensive 3 disc Bluray set which shows the film in it’s best possible quality with a detailed set of extra features (This set was repackaged into a 2 disc set released in September 2019). In the US it was released with no problems and premiered in 1977 to little or no fanfare. It then dropped off the radar almost completely until it’s home video release 2000’s.
Salo to me is a masterpiece, a film that dances the line between abject disgust and nihilism and a sense of border absurdity. Its not something you watch regularly, it requires a very specific mind-set. But it’s carefully crafted nature should not be underestimated. This has been carefully orchestrated to cause the maximum amount of offense to the exact people Pasolini would have wanted to offend. In that sense it’s an absolute success. This definitely isn’t a film for everyone. But if you can get over the grimmer elements on display in this film. you will be rewarded 10 fold for your perseverance. An astounding art film and a terrifically underrated counter culture movie.