Review #20: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is the best awful movie

  1. You don’t forget Salò
  2. You can’t forget Salò
  3. You shouldn’t forget Salò

These truths are self-evident from the content of Pasolini’s final film as well as the context in which it was made, and now the context in which it is being played.

I have seen Salò three times. I think. The first is burned indelibly in my memory as much for its horrors as for the Pad Thai I was eating at the time.

I believe there was a second in that same living room, this one without Pad Thai – or any other kind of food. I remember being prepared for what was to come.

This time, there was popcorn. And I was ready – as ready as you can be, anyhow.

I hemmed and hawed over the decision to buy a ticket to the 35mm screening at the Metrograph in New York City – the death of Moviepass previously marked the end of my visits to that theater, asking people I knew and even a Facebook group I take part in if it was worth doing. Part of it was a matter of timing: I wanted to finally see Alfonso Cuaron’s ROMA, which was playing in 70mm further uptown during overlapping times, and I definitely didn’t want to see ROMA first. But a late-night ROMA screening was added, and based on the absolutely nothing I knew about it, I thought maybe it would be a nice pallet cleanser.

And while I wouldn’t go that far, I will say that it makes for a more appropriate double feature than I had expected. It’s also amazing and will likely be remembered as one of the best films of the decade.

Right. Salò.

The word “Awful” historically has two meanings, and Salò fits both. It is awful in the modern sense of the term in that it is absolutely horrific. When the credits rolled, a man sitting next to me said, “That was disgusting.”

It is awful in the archaic sense that it inspires awe. That same man then said, “I don’t think this is even parody” (more on that in a bit. “I think that just, like, happened. Or happens.” There is nothing quite like Salò, a statement that shall remain true, I think, in perpetuity. The absolute horrors depicted here are the typical purview of films far less interested in, say, exploring the impact of fascistic power upon an unsuspecting and undeserving population, than they are in just making you regret your life decisions. They shock for the sake of shock, whether their creators would cop to that or not.

But in the work of the Marquis De Sade, whose 120 Days of Sodom Salò loosely adapts, Pasolini saw what he called “The choreography of fascism.” And that perfectly encapsulates the film that he made. Every single movement in Salo drives towards the central thesis, simply enough: Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

It would not be unfair to consider Salò a bit pompous, being that in its opening credits it lists an “Essential Bibliography” of writers and philosophers whose work could serve to illuminate its intentions further. And I can understand how someone might see that and think that Pasolini was just obfuscating his desire to direct some disgusting imagery under the guise of philosophy and intellectualism. But there is a reason that Salò is in the hallowed Criterion Collection and, say, Cannibal Holocaust and A Serbian Film are not.

Cannibal Holocaust is a fairly significant film, being really the progenitor of the found footage genre and using some of the same marketing tactics that The Blair Witch Project would exploit nearly two decades later; it also has a very clear “meaning,” one that is made explicit in the final moments of the film – ya know, for those who were too distracted by the actual animal murder to notice. But that rings hollow because of the content itself – see: actual animal murder.  

Likewise for A Serbian Film, the writer for which I am, bizarrely enough, Facebook friends with. It doesn’t have a particular historical significance like the others, but it has seen a similarly extreme reaction. And… justifiably so. While it can be seen as a direct descendent of Salò’s psycho-sexual politics, A Serbian Film works very hard to make sure that it is the most brutal version of its theme that it can be. And, like Cannibal Holocaust, revels in that brutality. It is a horror film first and a message movie… eventually… maybe.

Salò isn’t that. Salò’s horror feels almost incidental. These scenes are often brief, and the camera is dispassionate – matter of fact. It doesn’t bask in the carnage or linger just a little bit too long. Much more time is given to segments where atrocities are described by “The Storytellers,” women all dolled up and so joyfully detailing traumatic experiences from their youths as a way to sexually charge the atmosphere. It’s disturbing, to be sure, but the worst of it is described for the audience rather than depicted. And it’s honestly not as dour as one might expect. Seeing it this time, there was one actual moment of laughter in the theater and a few more that came close – including two puns that I imagine worked better said aloud than as subtitles.

It is not a light film by any stretch of the imagination, but it is also so much less dark than it could be considering what it is. When the man next to me said to his companion “It’s not parody, etc.” I assume he was attempting to sound Very Smart. Unfortunately, he was clearly confusing parody for satire, but he is right to see it as some type of comedy of horrors.

The set, as recounted in the genuinely fascinating short documentary that accompanies the Criterion release, was an unexpectedly fun place to be. People were laughing and enjoying themselves, particular during the most horrible scenes. But in retrospect, it actually feels right that they would be. Sometimes the only response to atrocity is levity. And when you are depicting the greatest atrocities, laughter is the only way to cope.

And so we return to the context for that depiction. The decision to transplant the Marquis De Sade’s France-set story to the final days of the Mussolini Fascist government was Pasolini’s. He directed the film at a time where he saw a society rushing back towards fascism. His brutal murder, committed before the film even released, seems to indicate that he wasn’t wrong. His work, then, is a reality that he understood but also one that he believed was about more than just his own time – a reality that spans decades: The 1940s. The 1970s. The 2010s.

Watching Salò in 2019 adds a new layer of unnerving. It feels like the kind of thing that could never happen while also being the kind of thing that has definitely actually happened and that may well be happening right now. Whatever the conspiracy theorists involved in Pizzagate imagined was going on in the nonexistent basement of that DC restaurant, it may well have borne some resemblance to this film.

The experience of watching Salò in a theater on an aging 35mm print is radically different from seeing Criterion’s Blu Ray restoration in the comfort of one’s living room. The damage to that print adds a layer of artifice, and the size of the screen makes the fact that the dialogue is ADR’d poorly far, far more apparent. The seams in the film itself become clearer on the big screen. This, combined with the horrendous seats in the Metrograph (I switched positions at least 15 times over the two hours) results in a viewing experience that is almost entirely outside of the film itself. You never really get “immersed.” And I think that may be the best way to see it.

For one: It’s easier to watch. Being outside of it, the most disgusting scenes are slightly more tolerable. But really, it’s because in that context, Salò becomes a series of questions that you as the viewer are constantly forced to ask about how and why and who and what – none with clear or necessarily “good” answers. It becomes a two-hour mind game. And after the credits roll? Well, you’re still playing it, because it stays in your head. Forever.

I first saw Salò during a period in my life when I was trying to see everything on those lists of Most Shocking Films of all time. Your Cannibal Holocausts and August Undergrounds and the like. Amidst them, Salò stuck out as something entirely unique and not for people who just want to see the most depraved imagery every committed to celluloid. It contains some of that, sure, but if that’s what you’re after, you’ll leave disappointed if not outright frustrated. You must have more than a strong constitution. You must want to engage with the ideas that Salo puts forth, to think about its metaphors and philosophies.

Maybe even read that bibliography.

Seven Point Five out of Ten

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