Combustible Celluloid
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With: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti, Caterina Boratto, Elsa De Giorgi, Helene Surgere, Sonia Saviange
Written by: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sergio Citti
Directed by: Pier Paolo Pasolini
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Italian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 116
Date: 10/03/1977

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

1 Star (out of 4)

Days of Hell

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Is Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom art or garbage? I am not a puritan, and I have defended many extreme, button-pushing movies over the years. But I would cast a vote for the latter.

Pasolini starts out with a good idea, to take the Marquis de Sade's work and transpose it to the fascist occupation of Italy in 1944. Hence it's a message movie. Basically, it's saying "aren't these guys terrible?" And the movie doesn't leave much wiggle room on that question. They are terrible. To prove it, one of them even has crossed eyes, and another bad teeth.

Four powerful men basically kidnap a bunch of young men and women and hold them prisoner in a lovely villa. Over the course of 120 days, the prisoners are tortured, raped, and humiliated in many ways. One long segment of the movie is devoted exclusively to the eating of excrement.

So, for many viewers, what makes this art? To me, art is achieved if the filmmaker manages to put something of him or herself in the work, whether it's some deeply-felt emotion, or a stylistic touch, or even a specific brand of humor. I believe that art should be emotional, however, and not just a soapbox sermon.

Of course, it could be argued that Salò; is an emotional experience: it's excruciating and unpleasant and disgusting. It affects viewers in a physical, nauseating way. But what does this reveal about Pasolini? He does not seem to be inside this material. Indeed, his gaze seems to be upon the audience, rather than on the material; he's watching them, daring them, challenging them, and perhaps even disparaging them. It's a test, rather than an experience.

It can also be argued that Salò looks artistic. It appears to be a work of art. Pasolini frames the action on large, bare sets with the suggestion of opulence, though empty space rules the day. Then the final, blood-curdling ten minutes is a drastic change, set in a muddy exterior and viewed through hand-held binoculars. It's understandable that some pundits would look at these "choices" and label them as artistic ones.

Certainly Pasolini was thinking about his material in some way, but I maintain that he was not feeling it. I have not read Sade's original material, but my understanding is that it was at least a little titillating, as well as shocking. The sex in Pasolini's movie is not about pleasure -- except for two brief same-sex love scenes toward the end -- but rather about the brutal taking of power. It's essentially one long rape.

It should also be noted that this was Pasolini's final film. He was killed just around the time it was completed. Some claim that he was murdered, perhaps by a former lover, though some believe that his murder was politically motivated.

Perhaps the most basic service a movie critic can provide is to answer the question of whether or not a viewer should see a given movie. I can't think of a reason in the world that anyone should subject him or herself to this.

The Criterion Collection cannot be faulted for their flawless new Blu-Ray release, as well as the three documentaries and two interviews that are included, all of which try to make a case for the film as a work of art.

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