Sight and Sound Top 250 #228 – Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Once again we continue our journey through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Movies of All Time list, we come to #228, Pier Paolo Passolinis Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom. And as always I’ll note that for those just joining us, you can find a full introduction to what the Sight and Sound Top 250 list is, and a look at the complete list of the movies on it, along with links to the ones I’ve already written about here. And, if you want to be sure not to miss any of these posts, just head on over to the Facebook page and give it a “like”or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I post anytime one of these – or anything else on the blog, along with just random other links and thoughts that may not make it into full posts – goes up. Trust me, if you’re not following one or the other (or both), you’re not getting the full Durmoose Movies experience.

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“All’s good if it’s excessive.”

I’ll admit, there are certain films on this list that I’ve been avoiding for one reason or another. Some of them are overly familiar, and I’m not sure what new I might have to say about them, others just don’t seem (at least at first glance) like they’re the kind of film that would pique my interest. Then there are a few, such as today’s film, Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom that I’ve been putting off because of their reputation.

Based at least in part on the writings of the Marquis de Sade, and tinged with Dante’s Inferno, the film definitely has a reputation as one of the most vile and disgusting movies ever to be released to mainstream theaters.. How then did it make a list of the best films of all time?

The basic premise of Salo can be easily summed up: a group of eighteen young adults – nine male and nine female – are kidnapped by four aristocrats who have their own small army to keep everyone in line and are brought to a palatial villa where they are forced to submit to the aristocrats’ every whim.

The problem comes with just what those whims are. The aristocrats are an extremely perverse lot – perhaps some of the worst villains ever put on film – and they indulge themselves in everything from physical torture, rape, sodomy, the eating of feces, golden showers, and yes, even murder. To make matters worse, they seem to experience a sexual pleasure from this perversity.

It would, of course, be easy to dismiss Salo as simply pornography, and this has been done, In its own native Italy, where the film was released just over a month after director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s death, it was pulled from theaters after three weeks and was formally banned. It has also been banned and censored in other countries, although, surprisingly, never in the U.S.

But there is something to the film which, despite its objectionable subject matter an its portrayal of abominations, raises it high above mere simplistic dismissal.

First, there is the fact that, despite the abhorrent nature of the material that is being portrayed, Salo is, in fact, a beautiful film. The setting, the aristocrats’ palatial estate, provides a gorgeous backdrop, and it seems that every room has been immaculately conceived to provide just the perfect setting and color scheme for what is taking place. And color is obviously very important to Pasolini as every hue is deep and rich and draws the eye even as one wishes to avert it from what is actually taking place.

Pasolini’s camerawork s also obviously that of a master, as he chooses just the right way to frame every scene in order to intimidate the thinking viewer but also to provide a sense of distance which allows the viewer to be more of an observer as opposed to an actual participant in the horrendous goings-on.

I was especially struck by this towards the end of the film when the most horrific physical tortures are taking place. As opposed to many modern day horror films which place the audience as close to the blood and gore as possible in order to give the audience a type of “you are there” experience – yes Hostel and the rest of your ilk, I’m looking at you – instead we view the scenario which is taking place in the villa’s courtyard from the perspective of on of the aristocrats who is viewing the events through an upstairs window using binoculars, thus providing us with a much needed sense of detachment which, while not completely relieving the horror of what is going on, nevertheless allows the viewer to maintain a bit of distance.

Further, there are also the political and social commentaries that are being made in the film. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but the setting of the film is Italy’s Republic of Salo (thus the film’s title) during the last days of the regime of Benito Mussolini. The aristocrats fashion themselves as Anarchists, and the entire film is structured to represent the abyss dividing those with power from those without. The young adults who are the subjects of the men’s tortures are given little background and little personality and are basically treated as interchangeable commodities existing solely for the use of these men.

To say that Salo is not an easy film is a huge understatement. Nor is it a film that I would recommend to everyone, nor one that I am ever likely to revisit. It is a challenge to sit through, and there are scenes which are definitely repulsive. Nonetheless, it is a film that goes far beyond its basic premise and will reward the open-minded viewer with an experience that film rarely equals.

Here’s your trailer:

 

 

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