Hello, boys and girls. Welcome to Uncle Agitation’s smiley happy movie club. Today we’re going to be watching Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom’. Hands up who wants to know what the title means.
Well, kiddies, Salò is a lakeside town in northern Italy. At the end of the Second World War, it was the last outpost of Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship. ‘The 120 Days of Sodom’ is a book by a French writer called the Marquis de Sade. He principally wrote about – …
No, Little Johnny, not Marky Mark. Marquis de Sade. It’s from his name that we get the word sadism. Which is what he principally wrote about. Hands up who knows what sadism means. Well, kiddies, some people get their jollies from – …
On second thoughts, let’s send the kiddies home before Social Services turn up. All under eighteens out of the room? Good. Let’s crack a beer, order a pizza and get down to a full and frank (not to mention decidedly adult) conversation about ‘Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom’.
(Umm, actually cancel that pizza order. I don’t think any of us will have much of an appetite by the end of this article. And hold the beer as well. We’re gonna need something a lot stronger!)
De Sade’s ‘The 120 Days of Sodom’ is an unfinished work which concerns four noblemen who, tiring of life, decamp to an isolated chateau with the intention of killing themselves. The mechanics of this suicide pact, rather than involving such traditional fare as hanging, poison or cutting implement/vascular system interfaces, are a protracted and total abandonment to carnal pleasures. Yup, these boys decide to fuck themselves to death.
As if to prove that you can go further than even the Marquis de Motherfucking Sade, Pasolini updates the story to 1944 and replaces the four aristocratic degenerates with the President (Umberto Quintaville), the Duke (Paolo Bonacelli), the Bishop (Giorgio Cataldi) and the Magistrate (Aldo Valetti) – they are referred to only by their titles – therefore upping the ante on de Sade’s commentary on the corruption of the upper classes to include the corruption of the state, the church and the law. Which is basically a fuck you to just about everyone in a position of power or authority.
Prez, Duke, Bish and Mags (sorry ’bout the contractions, but I’m 400 words into this review and I’ve not even got started on a synopsis yet) are introduced announcing their intention to marry each others’ daughters and thereby “sealing our destinies forever”. At this point, should the newcomer to ‘Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom’ decide to hit the off button, eject the DVD and slowly back away, I would consider them very wise to do so. By doing so they’d avoid themes and imagery the likes of which would make the kind of stuff I sat through during the Winter of Discontent look like an episode of ‘Pingu’. (Put it this way: I’ve seen ‘Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom’ once – eight years ago – and there are aspects of it that still make me feel physically sick to think about. ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, by comparison, is something I watched three months ago and can now consider objectively without wanting to hurl.)
So, having discussed the, ah, ins and outs of the mutual daughter-marrying scenario, our boys round up a group of peasant youths as well as shanghai-ing some girls from a convent. They inform their captives that heterosexual acts are punishable by dismemberment and religious acts by death. These ground rules established, Prez, Duke, Bish and Mags humiliate and assault them in just about every manner possible, be it sexually, physically, emotionally or psychologically. They are stripped and leashed, forced to act like dogs and eat scraps from bowls.
It gets worse.
Whippings and sodomy ensue. As do enforced acts of urolagnia and caprophilia. The sanctity of marriage is mocked, the “bride” and “groom” (sometimes opposite sexes, sometimes not) are led through the ceremony for the amusement of their captors, only to be denied consummation thereafter (“that flower belongs to us”). Oh, and they’re generally raped at the beginning of the ceremony.
‘Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom’ is the ne plus ultra of cinematic ordeals. Make it through the two hours of Pasolini’s rub-your-nose-in-the-shit exposition of man’s inhumanity to man and it puts the bete noires of the last decade or so into perspective. ‘Funny Games’ – kid’s stuff! ‘Eden Lake’ – hah, more like ‘Carry On Camping’! ‘A Serbian Film’ – puh-leeze, there’s at least quarter of hour that’s non-offensive! ‘Irreversible’ – what, only the one rape?
By any definition, Pasolini’s swansong (he was murdered by a rent boy shortly after completing work on the film) ought to be the last word in exploitation cinema – a venal, sickening, taboo-destroying, vomit-inducing, virtually unwatchable exercise in the most bestial excesses of filth and depravity ever committed to celluloid. (To anyone arriving at these pages by searching “venal, sickening, vomit-inducing excesses of filth and depravity”, just fuck off back to the porn sites, okay?) But, like ‘A Serbian Film’, there is a political agenda behind the movie and a genuine aesthetic to its execution and as such it demands to be approached on a higher level than, for instance, ‘Ilsa, the Wicked Warden’.
In the scenes where the captives, thoroughly depersonalized, exhibit either a disturbing complaisance or turn against each other (informing on minor or entirely invented infringements in order to curry favour with their overlords) Pasolini organizes his material into a shattering indictment both of fascism and those who collaborate. Taken with those awful, gut-wrenching mockeries of the marriage ceremony (a defilement and utter rejection of love and tenderness), ‘Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom’, the film emerges as Pasolini’s condemnation – equally – of bourgeois complacency and fascist inhumanity. Even if the visual catalogue of depravities are every bit the equal of de Sade’s nihilistic source material, Pasolini’s directorial aesthetic is unambiguously one of political and social denouncement.