Widely considered one of the most shocking films ever created, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini presented to the world a series of images that would cause controversy for almost fifty years. For those who are completely unaware of the contents of this film, I’ll give a big disclaimer here and say that I’m going to try and keep this diplomatic, but it’s a very rough film to talk about.
“Salo” is the story of WWII Italy, and specifically about four fascist libertines (including a president and a bishop) who kidnap 9 adolescent boys and 9 adolescent girls and subject them to 120 days of depravity, torture, sexual violence, mental trauma, spirital degradation, and so much more. It’s a film whose reputation precedes it, and rightfully so.
Just to address the content without getting too graphic – this film is a nonstop barrage of images where these powerful figures take these children, strip them nude for the entire film (you see EVERYTHING), and tell them they are not allowed to cry or talk about God or face their wrath – which turns out to be much worse then simply getting a bullet to the head. Every day consists of these children getting together in a room while a few women come down and tell sexually graphic tales to stir up the imaginations of the kids and the old men alike – tales that include everything from her losing her virginity at age 7, to killing her own mother being the best thing she’s ever done, to being paid to defecate so another old man could eat it. In this way, the film almost plays out like a ghost story tale where you hear a story that is meant to be stimulating and horrible, just to prelude you for what events you are about to witness yourself. The movie begins with a more playful tone and quickly goes to Hell in a handbasket.
It’s broken into 4 acts – Prelude, Circle of Obsession, Circle of Shit, and Circle of Blood – each one being more grueling than the last. It is literally two hours of pedophilia, constant rape, the death of innocence, the death of the flesh, and the death of faith.
The real-world horrors presented within are what haunt me the most. Recent events like Epstein Island are reminders that these events happen far often then we might expect – and I’d suspect it’s just as awful. Most critics see the film as a harsh criticism of capitalism and the abuse of power in political figures, and while I agree with that, I think the contents are even more literal than that. It’s a conversation most people do not want to have, and even while watching the film they place it into a fairy tale land to make it easier to swallow, but I think this film is meant to be as literal as possible.
To add extra context, this director was assassinated 3 months before this film’s release. I personally believe that this film scared somebody with a lot of power, and if that doesn’t emphasize my point then I don’t know what does.
One thing that does slightly counterbalance this is that the age of consent in Italy is 14 years old, meanwhile these children are supposed to be between the ages of 10-15. I’m not at all suggesting this makes things okay, but it adds some more color to the story.
This movie is haunting me to this day. It’s exactly what I thought it would be, but the quality of the filmmaking is honestly beautiful – which makes the horrific imagery that much stronger. It’s not for everyone (or even most people), but it’s the type of film that will drain your soul. It makes you complacent to the idea of violence with a tip-of-the-hat nod while staring into the camera at the climax and breaking character for a quick second. You, the audience, are just guilty to be present for this debauchery as the characters themselves are.
It’s amazing, and it’s legendary status is well earned. But it will make you hate humanity. It will make you want to die. It will make you cry. It will make you unable to go back to normal every day life. You have been warned.
“Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom” are now available on Criterion DVD/Blu-Ray.
‘Til Next Time,
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