Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Apologies, first of all, for my evasive omission of a standard VideoVista rating - but anyone
who's seen Pasolini's last film will know that it's such an extreme love-it-or-hate-it experience
that reducing it to a mark out of ten seems utterly meaningless. There are plenty of notorious films
whose notoriety stems more from official disapproval than anything else - most of the titles on the
DPP's original 'video nasties' list are not only laughably bad but also laughably tame, as
demonstrated by the fact that most of them have quietly slipped out onto video and DVD in recent
years with little fanfare. But one of the many remarkable things about Salò (aka: The
120 Days Of Sodom) is that it's still a genuinely shocking, transgressive experience that's lost
virtually none of its original potency - it hasn't been diluted by age or tamed by subsequent films
tackling similar material.
Salò is derived from three sources - Dante, de Sade and Mussolini. In the original British release, a textual prologue was added to explain this - a wise, if peculiar move, since few films are more in need of some form of contextualisation (the DVD supplies Pasolini's own introduction to the film, and those in search of more background detail are recommended to try Gary Indiana's monograph in the BFI Modern Classics series). And the film's scholarly pretensions are further emphasised by one of the most distinctive opening credits ever created - a bibliography, citing works by Simone de Beauvoir, Roland Barthes, Pierre Klossowski and others. Whether this is a sly in-joke by Pasolini or a somewhat crude attempt at emphasising the essential seriousness of his film no-one knows - it may even be a bit of both.
As in de Sade's novel, four pillars of society carefully select and imprison 16 beautiful youths of both sexes, and subject them to an increasingly degrading series of humiliations and tortures, aided by male guards and female courtesans: the former meting out violence, the latter lurid, sexually graphic anecdotes, incongruously underscored by Chopin nocturnes. The Dante influence is most explicit in the way the film is divided up into a series of 'circles', an opening 'Antinferno', the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit and the Circle of Blood, all of which neatly characterise the content of the scenes within them. And the year and place in which it's set - 1943, the town of Salò, the site of Mussolini's short-lived attempt at establishing a breakaway Fascist republic - makes it clear that the film is primarily about Fascism, which of course was the dominant political system under which Pasolini spent the first two decades of his life, but it's also an attack on capitalist systems in general: the film's most notorious scene, a banquet whose guests eat their own excrement, is apparently intended as a commentary on processed foods - and this does actually stand up to a great extent, but it's likely the first-time viewer will be too nauseated to want to think too much about what the scene is actually saying.
And this, of course, is Salò's great dilemma - it's simultaneously challenging, provocative and intellectually exciting, while at the same time it's virtually impossible to come up with the kind of rational, analytical response that Pasolini invites because the surface detail is so physically repellent. Although once the first circle is breached, there's scarcely a shot that doesn't contain copious frontal male and female nudity, and there's scarcely a scene that doesn't contain some atrocity or other, it's deliberately filmed in such a way as to make it profoundly unappetising - long shots predominate, and the very soft transfer of this BFI version occasionally makes it hard to see what's going on.
Put bluntly, anyone thinking of watching Sal� for the kind of pleasurable thrills you get from, say, a Herschell Gordon Lewis gore movie or films made by Pasolini contemporaries Dario Argento, Mario Bava or Lucio Fulci will almost certainly switch it off well before the end or, worse, will challenge themselves to stay the course, but in so doing will miss what the film is actually saying - and while the setting may appear to date it, its points about corruption and exploitation stand up just as forcefully today.
Pasolini never intended it to be his last film (he was murdered shortly after its completion) but it's hard to imagine where he'd have gone from here: a relentlessly nihilistic experience, Salò doesn't so much teeter on the edge of the abyss as plunge into it with reckless abandon. It's no wonder that few are comfortable about making the same journey - by challenging us to even sit through his film, Pasolini forces us to ask questions about ourselves whose answers are more disturbing than any of the images he throws up on screen.
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