DVD Review Of Salo, or 120 Days Of Sodom

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/21/08


  Why is it that bad artists always try to justify their garbage by claiming to be experimental, political, or any other aspect that does not pertain to the quality of the art? Well, simple- they cannot justify it any other way. Naturally, when the film or novel or painting’s been banned in many places, it only allows the puerile artist to stroke himself more. But, since that’s the only reason such art is made- witness all the art made from or with bodily excretions and/or simply used evoke outrage by lowest common denominator means, it means that the base reaction sought is easily achieved. Of course, astute art lovers and critics see through such crap with ease, while a few dilettantish asses do not; yet it’s the asses who seem to always be quoted.

  With that in mind, I recently watched Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 celluloid vomitus, Salò, or 120 Days Of Sodom (Salò O Le 120 Giornate Di Sodoma), and it is a horrid movie- not because of its sadomasochism and assorted other sexual ills, but because it is a poorly directed, anomically visual, horribly scripted, terribly acted, poorly scored mess of a film that lacks humor, depth, and any iota of quality. But, none of these are its worst sins- and the film that features every imaginable sexual perversion has been accused of many. No, the film’s cardinal sin is not that it’s disturbing, but that it is dull. I mean D….U….L….L. If I have not made my point sufficiently, let me try to emotionally convey the extent of my incessant yawning spasms whilst watching: ok, here goes….D (now open your mouth as if the cock of a virgin Italian boy was all you desired). Got that? Let’s try a U (and imagine you are cutting off the pink of a young maiden’s nipple, just so that a gush of blood will stain your mouth like a vampire’s first sating). Ok? Now, let me hit you with an L (imagine having to stretch, just to stay awake, and then being delighted as a perverse old Neapolitan sodomite stiffs you from behind with his semi-flaccid rod). Still need more? Sure. Let’s top that off with a final L (as you wipe your semen-stained mouth with satiety and uncork a shit-eating grin- yes, literally a shit-eating grin!). Now, imagine repeating this exercise in persuasion, oh, about 1200 times, and you will have gotten what I had to endure in watching this travesty.

  But, I suppose, as a critic of conscience, I owe you a bit more on this hardened piece of coprolite-in-waiting. The film is reputedly based upon the Marquis De Sade’s book The 120 Days Of Sodom (Les Cents-Cingts Journées De Sodome), published over two centuries ago. Sade, naturally, was the first of these talentless hacks who indulged in writings that, like the film, is not even mediocre pornography. Pasolini, too, was a writer- a notoriously bad poet (not unlike fellow charlatan poet/filmmaker Jean Cocteau), and included in the hideous DVD by EuroCult (with bleached light, drained colors, and too dark shadows) is a Foreword by Pasolini (read by a bad actor), in which the schlockmeister tries to justify the film by first stating that he did not change a word from Sade’s text (as if that’s an excuse), and then making a specious connection between the film’s homosexual antagonists, and their sexual sadism, and that of the Fascists of Italy and the Nazis of Germany, even though both groups routinely persecuted homosexuals, sexual deviants, and such a reality would never have been tolerated at the time. Also, the psychological comparison between the sexual sadism of a cult of fetishists and the nationalistic cults mentality of Nazism and Hitler worship is patently false- sort of like comparing milk that went bad because of deliberate chemical curdling and someone accidentally leaving it out for three days.

  Here is a brief synopsis: the film is set in the Nazi puppet state in northern Italy, in 1944, called the Republic of Salò, which was formed after Italy was invaded by the Allies, and Hitler rescued Mussolini from the legitimate Italian government. It was so named because its capital city was Salò, a town midway between Milan and Verona. This very fact makes the idea that there was any historical basis for the film laughable, as the Nazis not only hated homosexuals, but distrusted the Fascists as weak, for they could not hold up their end of the Axis. Yet, despite the fact that the Republic was a Nazi puppet state, not a single swastika is seen in the film, and perhaps only a German or three is seen.

  The film is formally divided into four sections: Antinferno, Circle of Manias, Circle of Shit, and the Circle of Blood, and opens as four aging bisexual roués plot to abduct eighteen teens of perfect physical means (nine boys, nine girls), take them to an isolated hideaway, and sexually abuse, molest, and torture them under a set of laws of their own choosing, which are arbitrary, and subject to change at a whim- such as never mentioning religion. Disobedience is punishable with means up to death. The four sickos are a local Duke, Bishop. Magistrate, and President, who are otherwise nameless. After taking their prey, the second act begins and the old bastards hire four haggard old prostitutes to regale them with arousing stories to whet their appetites for sexual mayhem. Naturally, not a single tale is spellbinding, erotic, nor remotely interesting in the least. They consist of narrative bursts like: ‘When I was an eight year old prostitute, a dying man wanted me to show him my arse. As I bent over his deathbed, he asked me to shit on his face. I did. The end.’ At the end of each of these tales, one of the old perverts runs off with a child and either humiliates them or begs to be humiliated.

  As days go on, the tortures increase. By the third act of the film, naturally, shit fetishism takes over, and all are forced to eat the shit of others. Reputedly, Pasolini concocted his filmic feces of chocolate pudding and raspberry marmalade. Somehow, this Internet factoid is often foisted to a reader to allay them that no real coprophagy occurred in the film. The final act sees bloodletting take hold, as those who violated the arbitrary rules are tortured and killed- including one of the sickos’ hired men, who is finked on by one of the prisoners for fucking the African servant girl. Perhaps the only mildly interesting thing in the film is how some of the prisoners turn on each other by revealing their ‘crimes,’ such as hiding photographs and lesbianism. The final act sees bloodletting take hold, as those who violated the arbitrary rules are tortured and killed- including one of the sickos’ hired men, who is finked on by one of the prisoners for fucking the African servant girl. Both, of course, are shot dead. The rest of the violators are tortured by flame, eye gouging, nipple branding, scalping, tongue cutting, and penis burning. This is all seen from afar by the four masturbatory old bastards who watch this with field glasses as they peer into a courtyard. Then, the film ends out of the blue, with two of the younger guards, hired by the old sickos, teaching each other to dance.

  Let me now add- not a single thing in this film (whose only grace note is that it clocks in at ‘only’ and hour and 55 minutes) is wrought well- the camera work by cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli is shoddy, static, often out of focus- in the actual print, not the DVD transfer, there are gratuitous closeups that serve no purpose, the framing of many scenes is pointless, and the color and lighting poor. Yes, there are major problems with the quality of the transfer- speckled and soiled in places, but even mentally adjusting for enhancement, no one is going to confuse this with the great camerawork one sees in a film by Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, nor Stanley Kubrick. The acting is so bad, so stiff, and the indulgence in the perversions so anomic- some actors seem to enjoy the actual filming as a lark, others are dead earnest, while others seem to hardly discern they are acting. Given their utter lack of enthusiasm, and the fact that most were minor Italian screen names, at best, I won’t even add to their ignominy by naming them. One even wonders what sort of control Pasolini exercised on set. The writing by Pasolini and Sergio Citti is disgraceful- at times stilted, at others inane or inapt, but always dull. There are no Plan 9 From Outer Space ‘so bad it’s good’ moments in this swill, the way there are in, say, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Whity. And even the film’s scoring, by the renowned Ennio Morricone is so pointless that I can barely recall a note of it.

  Naturally, the film has legions of defenders. Here are some of the most ridiculous things reviewers, anonymous online pervs and some big name critics, say:


  An author once said that it is the function of the artist to hold a mirror up to society, but that it's not the fault of the artist if society doesn’t like what it sees. Such is that case with ‘Salo.’


  Well, that is true, but beside the point since neither Italian nor contemporary European nor American society consists of the sexual degradation of individuals in an autocratic state that has no parallels to its internal cinematic times nor any metaphoric relevance to societies since. It is merely another in a long line of works of art and art movements masqued as social or political fodder so that the artist’s own shortcomings (personal and creative) are not addressed.

  Let’s gander at another claim:


  There are two claims, both of which I feel are false, that are often made about Salo: 1) The film goes far overboard in its display of disgusting and offensive behavior and 2) The film ultimately becomes the very evil it despises….The second offense often claimed by detractors is that Salo eventually becomes that which it despises, that is to say it becomes fascist.  However, it is important to note that while the film is depicting the birth, life, and death of a fascist system, it does not attempt to control or overpower the viewer through propaganda or any other means. 


  In a word- no, it doesn’t become Fascist, nor is it a critique in Fascism. The only crime is it is dull and an execrable example of really bad art, made all the worse by idiotic sycophants who know nothing of any of the elements of film- from the technical side: camera placement, choreography, scoring, to the narrative backbone of the screenplay, dialogue, and characterization, to the acting ability of his minions. This film is callow from the first scenes, and lacks characterization, in favor of caricatures, and displays no humor, empathy, nor intellect. There are quick cuts that serve no purpose save as heralds for the ADD of later decades, and only add to the film’s incoherence. There are also trite back and forth cuts from long shots to close-ups that reveal nothing but the simplistic sadistic glee of the four old perverts. Furthermore, real criticism involves depth and the deployment of contrast, metaphors, and assorted other tools, and generally avoids puerility. Further evidence that the film is no critique of Fascism (other than that the Fascists loathed homosexuals)? In the real world, Fascism crept up on the people, through bit by bit means, until it was too late to stand against it. This film depicts a debauched system already in power, from the start, and this sick nonsense portrayed as the end result, with no semblance of explaining in any sense how it came to be, much less why.

  Here’s another insipid claim:


  Compared to these real horrors (of World War Two and modern life), from which many of us are shielded, ‘Salo’ is hardly an outrage. And to be outraged by it, but not by the real horrors taking place in our world- or trying to stop them is perhaps precisely the kind of hypocrisy-disguised-as-morality that Passolini (sic) and perhaps even de Sade were attempting to address. We look past the exact same type of human cruelty every day, but justify it to ourselves as necessary, sometimes for the greater (read: our own) good. It's no accident that Passolini (sic) set his movie in fascist Italy, during a time when the horrors portrated (sic) in his movie were actually taking place, and people looked the other way.


  Note the liberal guilt being floated to defend this bilge. First, the film, as mentioned, is wholly fictive. Nothing like this ever took place in Italy during the 1940s. Second, to compare this to real world horrors is pointless since there is nothing in the film that offers a thread of connection. As stated, sexual sadism is not the same thing as deprivation of liberty. It’s like claiming a sadosexual serial killer like John Wayne Gacy somehow was emblemic of all that’s wrong with the Mafia. Yes, both are evils, but evils on differing branches of the human psychic tree- with different causes.

  Instead, defenders of this film should look at it objectively, as a piece of art, and criticize it. My main gripe against it is that it’s dull, tedious, and banal. As example, the same charges cannot be levied against 1970s sexual exploitation, blaxploitation, nor porno films, much less grimmer things like claimed ‘snuff films, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, Faces Of Death, Last House On The Left, nor I Spit On Your Grave. Whatever the failings of the above named films and film genres, none of them contained both the major flaws of this work, and, on a visually graphic level, all of those other films (plus many recent video game inspired Hollywood films) outdo the violence and sex. In truth, I did not cringe once, merely laughed to my wife that Pasolini could even think there was some deeper point to this film. So, if one is honest and intelligent, one can only conclude that this was a vanity film, made solely that a sick bastard could attempt to whack off while trying to make a snuff film for the world so he could have a band of idolators long to fellate him, literally and figuratively.

  But, let’s take that will to be honest a little further. Imagine watching this film with an extraterrestrial, or the next closest thing; some person from a remoter culture- an Eskimo, or a Tibetan, or even someone from a small town in western Canada or Siberia. Now put aside all the pseudo-psychobabble, like this crap I found online: ‘by using the extremity of deSade (sic) and the awful truth of Fascism in Europe, Pasolini confronts the beast in us all.’ First, note how utterly similar the defense is to the earlier quoted, ‘And to be outraged by it, but not by the real horrors taking place in our world- or trying to stop them is perhaps precisely the kind of hypocrisy-disguised-as-morality that Passolini (sic) and perhaps even de Sade were attempting to address.’ It’s a dead giveaway when works of art can only be defended on one or two grounds, and variants of this lame defense abound by the dozens, if not hundreds, online, proving that bad minds, like great, unfortunately think alike. Great art can be defended in many ways since it stimulates many things. Nonetheless, this uninitiated has never heard the typical political BS arguments over art, the crap about merely being a reflection of society (in truth, it can reflect, refract, and occasionally influence), and especially has never been inculcated into the silly belief that art is about merely making one feel good, nor its inverse- art being a form of dialectic. All this person will see is characters who indulge in every form of sexual act and perversion, short of cannibalism, bestiality, and necrophilia. This would include crossdressing, sodomy, B&D, S&M, mutilation, sexual toys, sodomy, piercing, coprophagy, coprophilia, urination, lesbianism, orgies, miscegenation, voyeurism, masturbation, rape and gang rape. What would this uninitiated feel or think? Likely he would think there was something wrong with the art, as well as you, for finding this stimulating in any sense of the term, and wonder what sort of tribe you belong to which would find this in any way worth your time. And that’s just the initial, mildest reaction. He may, after some cogitation, think you a true sicko, not too different from the way we regard a serial killer of child rapist.

  And it’s precisely that sort of unacculturated view that puts the lie to all the plain old bullshit and floridly inane pseudopsychobabble on this film and its maker. Even more so, the whole film is so wholly inartfully represented, and so over the top that the only way it could even remotely work would be if it was treated in a Monty Pythonesque way. On an asides, it also begs the question as to why is it that all forms of supposed ‘reality’ we see- on television or film, are only of the Lowest Common Denominator sort, as well as based on degradation, rather than the overwhelming majority of ‘realism’ that deals with life’s banality, dullness, and utter indifference?

  Overall, Salò, or 120 Days Of Sodom is a very bad film; not the worst film I’ve ever watched, but surely amongst the dullest- think of an Andy Warhol Factory Film with some pointless perversions tossed in. There is little artistic merit, technically, no real narrative nor character development, no deeper ‘meaning,’ so why watch it? The only possible reason would be so that a young filmmaker could see exactly what NOT to do. I will watch some of Pasolini’s other films, but given my knowledge of this and his poetastry, I hold out little hope of getting by aesthetic socks knocked off.

  Of course, one of the reasons the film’s ‘reputation’- such as it is, has endured, is because of the death of Pasolini shortly after the film’s premiere. Depending on your mood, it was either ironic or fitting that Pasolini was murdered by a young man who was repulsed by the lech’s overt homosexual advances and propositioning for money. There are several versions of the tale, online, but the most consistent details seem to be that the underaged youth, then recently released from jail, beat the crap out of the filmmaker, left him in the road, and then took Pasolini’s keys to his car and repeatedly ran over the man with his own Alfa Romeo until he was dead. Naturally, and given the acrimony following the release of Salo, Pasolini defenders took to claiming that the Left Wing ‘artist’- a convicted child molester, himself, could not have been killed by the kid, but was the target of- you got it, a government conspiracy to ‘silence him.’ Now, given the utter lack of intellectual depth that his last film, and his body of poetry, as well as a sampling of his ‘critical writings’ that I have read translations of, this would be akin to the proverbial ‘using a sledgehammer to kill a flea.’ But, it has kept Pasolini and this swill on the fringes of cinematic consciousness. In fact, in 2006, Time Out magazine rated Salò the most controversial film ever made, or, did exactly what PPP wanted: if one is incapable of art, go for what keeps the name.

  The film has also played to the exact stereotypes that defenders of Lowest Common Denominator Hollywood garbage point to as bad highbrow Eurotrash cinema, meaning, they claim, ‘That their stuff is just as shitty as our stuff, but at least we admit it.’ And the verity of this, in regards to Salò, is one of the reasons that so many people laugh at real art, when even the good stuff is drowned in pretension. But, when one posits this sort of garbage as art, its even more difficult to argue against the swill the Steven Spielbergs and Ron Howards release. Worse, is that, as stated, it’s not even good porno (which often displays wit and bits of real eros), much less an interesting snuff nor exploitation film, merely a very, very pale imitation of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, the film that Pasolini wanted this to be, but without having to exert the artistic effort a master like Kubrick did. The result is film that merely tries to elicit disgust in its audience, yet, years later, can barely manage a yawn. Pasolini’s error, of course, was in thinking that the essence of art is an emotional thing, rather than an intellectual connection. After all, fart in a church, and take a look at the looks you get- mere ‘reaction’ is not that difficult a thing to accomplish.

  Perhaps the only real positive I could say about the film- or rather the Eurocult DVD (which lacks any real bonus features- not even a trailer), is that it does come with golden subtitles. Unfortunately, even that very minor positive is abated by the fact that the subtitles contain numerous grammatical and spelling errors. Overall, this film is not worth spending a dime nor a minute on. Take a pass on this film and rent an old porno film- perhaps a classic from the Ron Jeremy library. Ah, emotion!


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on Alternative Film Guide website.]


Return to Bylines

Bookmark and Share