In 1983, I managed to obtain a copy of a horror magazine titled DEMONIQUE at a local comic book shop (see cover below). It only ran for 4 issues, and this last issue featured an article on a 1975 Italian film titled SALO, or THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM. At the time I was 15 years old and was fascinated by what I was reading: surely a film this demented couldn't exist...could it?
It wasn't until around 1988, during the heyday of the underground VHS-trading craze among many horror film fanzine publishers (of which I was one) when I finally received a copy of Pier Paolo Pasolini's notorious film. The bootleg transfer was terrible, the English subtitles barely readable. I also found the film a bit slow (but then again what 20 year old wouldn't?) and despite some of the disgusting sequences, I was actually a bit let down. Don't get me wrong: SALO features some truly gross images, but after the DEMONIQUE article perhaps I was expecting even more? Regardless, I still felt the need to shower when the film ended.
FLASH FORWARD to the late 90s, when I rented a professional VHS copy from a local Palmer Video store (which I found in their foreign section). Being a bit older and not really caring how "sick" the film was, I watched it for a third time and was impressed by everything a younger film-viewer misses the first time around. SALO is actually beautifully shot and features some great-looking scenes. Pasolini has said he wanted to create a film that no one who saw would ever forget...and he has done so not only by the graphic images, but by the more subtle ones, too (some early shots of the Italian countryside are quite breath-taking, and the villa where the victims are tortured looks like anything but a glorified concentration camp).
I've recently added the Criterion Edition DVD of SALO to my collection. It's full of some fantastic extra features and an informative essay booklet, not to mention a nearly flawless transfer of the film.
And on June 11, 2012, something I never thought would happen did. SALO played in New York City at the IFC Center in a rare, 35mm screening. You might ask, why would anyone want to see such depravity on a huge screen? I guess I'm either a glutton for punishment or felt I was somehow completing a strange journey that began back in 1983 with a simple magazine article. Over the past few years, I've attended many retro-film screenings and have often felt like I was seeing the films for the first time...or in some cases, like seeing a film the way it was MEANT to be seen.
SALO is one such film, very loosely based on a book by the Marquis de Sade.
For those who don't know, the "plot" is simple: It's post-Mussolini Italy, 1944-5. Eighteen teenagers are kidnapped by Nazis and forced to live in an isolated villa under the rule of four fascist men (and their female counterparts). They're told that no one knows where they are, and that they now exist soley for their pleasure. Those who disobey their rule book will be punished harshly, and no pity will be shown or tolerated. The opening sequence, subtitled "The Antechamber of Hell," is a grim set up for what's to follow. We then go through a few "circles" of various torture, featuring all kinds of sexual atrocities and fetishes, to physical torture, brandings, and amputations. Opposite-sex relationships are not tolerated, although the fascists make one traditional couple marry for their own dark purposes. The prisoners spend their days listening to the four women tell tales of childhood sexual escapades; in turn, the four fascists are turned on and take various victims into a back room to fulfill their own desires. The stories get more intense (and perverse) and so do the actions of the men...as well as the punishments for those who disobey their commands.
Director Pasolini has stated, "Clearly, the motivation came from the fact that I detest the power in today’s world, which manipulates the body horribly, and rivals Himmler and Hitler in every way. It manipulates the body by transforming it into conscience, establishing new values that are alienating and false. Consumerist values that fulfill what Marx calls a genocide of vital and real earlier cultures. For example, it destroyed Rome. Romans no longer exist.”*
A similar comment was also recently made by director Srdjan Spasojevic about his equally-as-disturbing A SERBIAN FILM (2010).
Was Pasolini (and Spasojevic) serious, or were they simply trying to shock audiences in ways no one else had up to that point? I guess we'll never truly know, especially since Pasolini--shortly after the Italian premiere of SALO in 1975--was run over (repeatedly) by a car and killed. Apparently his film struck more chords than he had intended...
SALO, or THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM is an enigma. It's not an easy film to watch, and at times I still find some of the "story" sequences to be redundant (and--good grief--does the excrement-eating segments go on for WAY too long). Even as a young man, I didn't find any of the violent scenes "fun" in a way you'd find the violence in a standard horror or action film fun. And now at 44, I'm still wondering what my attraction to this thing is. Watching SALO unreel in a sold-out theater at least let me know there are many others out there fascinated with this film, perhaps some of them with similar stories as mine. I do consider SALO a work of art...a dark, disgusting, depressing, and depraved work of art...and a film unlike any other. I can't look at it too often, but when I do I'm put into a place few other films can put me in.
And for that, SALO is worth sitting through. At least once...
One of the 4 fascists barking orders
NO--that's NOT Gwenyth Paltrow! But it IS a disobedient victim...
One of several eye-catching shots that highlight SALO's artistic design
During one dinner sequence, the captors reveal their disease
No--that's NOT the Frank Sinatra fan club. They're just your run-of-the-mill fascist, sexual perverts looking to have a good time at YOUR expense!
For having the "nicest buttocks," one poor teen has his tongue cut out. Hmmm...shouldn't they have sat his bare ass down on a hot out-of-the-oven pizza pie?
(*From a Pasolini interview on the Criterion Edition DVD supplement material)