Salo -or- The 120 Days of Sodom is one of those rare films that does not allow for a lukewarm response. You may love it, you may hate it, you may not know exactly how you feel, but you will be thinking about it. I’ve definitely been thinking about it, but this particular blog isn’t any kind of review of the film, but just a scattering of impressions I’ve had.

For those not familiar with it, Salo is one of those “the most disturbing/controversial/fucked-up movie of all time” movies that you hear about from time to time. This moniker is applied to at least half a dozen films interchangeably, depending on who you happen to be talking to. Cannibal Holocaust, Addio Zio Tom, Mondo Cane, and of course Salo are frequent recipients of this title, and Salo does indeed make a damn fine case for itself. Suffice to say, a lot of fucked up shit happens.

Based on the incomplete Marquis De Sade manuscript, it is about four men of power in Salo, Italy. They are members of Mussolini’s fascist regime and are all around despicable men. The four come up with the bright idea to lock themselves away with 18 or so male and female victims in an estate manor and spend a few months being as perverse, decadent, and generally evil as they can manage (read: a lot of butt sex). That synopsis doesn’t even remotely do justice to how fucked up this movie is, but it should give you a general idea of your interest level.

The thing about Salo that separates it from its video-nasty brethren, is that it isn’t exploitation. It’s got all the signs of exploitations- it’s difficult to find a copy of it, has a simple premise, many boobies, extreme and prevalent violence, and it’s got that good ole grainy 70s look… But it isn’t exploitation so much as it’s about exploitation.

There is a lot of sex in this movie (like, a loooooot of it), but it’s not filmed exploitively. This is not poorly shot eroticism, but cold and foreplay-less abuse. It’s similar to I Spit On Your Grave such that, nobody should be getting any enjoyment from these scenes. It’s dissimilar to I Spit On Your Grave though, because this movie has much more to say than “Rape is Bad.”

Unlike many films of the Mondo or exploitative genres, it doesn’t have a hastily slapped on metaphor for the sake of art. This movie is based on a work of genuine literary note, and has a lot to say about the world. The director apparently put a lot of his own experiences in WWII-era Italy into his work and if one takes him at face value, this adds some weight to the proceedings. These messages are layered with varying degrees of subtlety in a determinedly repetitive film. The most obvious message is the indictment of fascism, but any ‘ole Tom, Dick, or Spielberg can manage that. No, the director, Pasolini, also goes after mass-manufactured food by depicting a large feast of nothing but shit. He has some things to say about the institution of marriage (fuck if I know what though), and the human ability to become callous to atrocity.

That last one is important, and probably the theme the film most effectively explores. The guards that keep the prisoners in check and do the bidding of the four perverse maestros show interesting changes through the film. They are the old story of the prison guards that become so in love with power and so desensitized to suffering, that they come to treat their prisoners like cattle rather than people. Unfortunately, the guards do display some pretty terrible behavior up front, so this isn’t as strong a progression as it could be.

The film is shot with a decided hand. There is art and expression to be found in how the events are presented and structured, especially in the final sequences of torture, death, and dancing. The level of success is debatable, but there can be no doubt that thought and care was put into this film, and that it wasn’t made to cash a quick buck or to justify a cool poster.

Once I finished the film, I was at a loss. I recently wrote about films that I know have substance, but that the product doesn’t click right away- films that I have to piece together in my mind. This is definitely one of them. My thoughts have begun to settle and I think this is an ambitious, important, and interesting film. The film makes an impact, but I can’t agree with Criterion that it’s “a masterpiece.” Due to the extreme nature of the film’s content, it’s easy to be extreme in response to it. Some see it as repulsive and depraved and dismiss it without a second glance at what it might have to say (see every censorship board, in every country ever, ever). Others see it, recognize the art of the movie, and because of how edgy and outside of the norm it is, elevate that art to a level that it can’t actually match. For my money, like usual, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. The film is definitely important and powerful because of it’s context and extremity, but maybe, when looked at objectively this is a movie that is really just okay, and just happens to have people eating shit and fucking each other a lot.

I am eager to have some serious conversation about this on the boards, as this is a movie I need to talk out. So please, join me.

Thanks for reading!

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BONUS: Renn’s One-Word Movie Review

Good / Bad / Neutral

July 8th, 2008 : : Lou Ferrigno’s HerculesSpacey

Past One-Word Movie Reviews
July 1st, 2008 : : WALL-ETender
June 27th, 2008  : : Addio Zio Tom (Goodbye Uncle Tom)Evil
June 22nd, 2008 : : You Don’t Mess With The ZohanJocular
June 17th, 2008  : : The HappeningEmbarrassing
June 14th, 2008  : : Kung-Fu PandaThin

June 12th, 2008  : : Run Lola RunReckless
June 9th, 2008    : : Day WatchUpgrade
June 8th, 2008    : : The AmateursEndearing