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  • Benjamin May

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) Review

Speak the name in some circles and you'll be greeted with cries of derision and condemnation. In others, you'll be told it's one of the most important, powerful films ever made. There may be no movie so infamous or so hotly contested as Pier Paolo Pasolini's last film 'Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.'

Inspired by 'The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage' by the Marquis de Sade, the film is set in Italy during WWII and follows four fascists named The Duke, The Magistrate, The President and The Bishop. Alongside their barbaric troupe of acolytes, they put a group of eighteen children through a Dantesque cycle of torture and perversion.

Completely unremitting in its' depiction of depravity and offering the viewer no respite from scenes of brutality at any point during its' runtime, the film makes for a fascinatingly violent viewing experience that is uncomfortable and unforgettable.

This is the problem with the whole film actually: it's hard to appreciate because Pasolini was so committed to showing the audience nothing but cruelty. 'Salò' could be seen as an allegory about the corrupting effect of absolute power, of the extreme savagery man is capable of when they have no inhibitions, shame or empathy. By showing us nothing but repetitive scenes of torture to illustrate this theme, though, the film seems a little cursory in its' examinations of same. A cynical critic might say it's a very one-note movie, that note being one of sadism, pain and disgust.

On the other hand, one might say that it is important for artists like Pasolini to hold truth to power in their work. While the film is based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade, by updating the film to a WWII setting, Pasolini can make commentary on the barbarism of the fascists during that war.

When the allies were liberating concentration camps, lampshades made with human skin were found. The twisted, unnecessarily cruel experiments Dr. Josef Mengele performed on children are well documented, as well as other countless acts of sadism undertaken by the fascists who enjoyed absolute power at the time.

One could say Pasolini is giving us an account of the viciousness that took place during WWII that cannot be forgotten or obfuscated by history- the film will always be around to remind us of where humanity went wrong. Except, 'Salò' is largely confined to an isolated mansion, which sets the proceedings apart from the war or real life. This gives the film an odd, otherworldly feeling that in turn makes trying to contemporize or understand it in a real-world context incredibly difficult and somewhat pointless, even if that is what Pasolini intended.

Say what you will about 'Salò', it does make you think and will certainly make you feel something- it is a visceral and intellectual experience. It's also a thoroughly uncomfortable one, featuring nearly two hours of torture and sexual perversion with no break for the viewer from the unceasing depravity whatsoever. It's not a film someone will say they enjoyed- and if they do be wary of that person- but it can be somewhat rewarding.

It is certainly unique and deserves its' infamous reputation as one of the most challenging pieces of cinema ever made. It is a film that will likely provoke different reactions from everyone who sees it- some will hate it and others will hail it as a masterpiece.

There are those of us whose feelings about the film are constantly in flux, who think they can see what Pasolini intended but don't think his ideas were expressed as eloquently as they could have been. Whatever the case and whatever your feelings are on the film, 'Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom' is an uncompromising journey into a world of depravity that is sure to leave an indelible impression on the viewer.


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