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Saló, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1976) April 11th, 2020

The film I’m discussing today contains content you’ll probably find distasteful. If you’re familiar with Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Henceforth refereed to simply as Saló) then consider yourself blessed with foreknowledge. The unfamiliar should stop reading now if they do not want to read a blog discussing a movie depicting the most offensive and disgusting subjects taboo in western culture. Including but not limited to kidnapping, sexual abuse and coprophagia.

I’m not kidding, don’t blame me if you didn’t look up the definition of coprophagia.

Saló is simultaneously a smorgasbord of horrific visuals and a poignantly passionate critique of fascism. Adapted from the Marquis de Sade’s book The 120 Days of Sodom and set in the fascist Italy of 1944, Saló depicts power as a boundless one-sided aphrodisiac. Heralded as the “Sickest film of all time.” Saló was censored and banned by many countries for decades before finding sanctuary in the home video market. I imagine the Marquis would be thrilled.

By now you’ve right-clicked coprophagia, defined it, and probably understand why movies depicting it have a hard time finding an audience. Not everyone can be John Waters. You may be perplexed by the appeal of Saló. Why would someone watch this? I’ll only speak for myself.

Unlike you I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Being familiar with the Marquis de Sade from Quills and an hilarious episode of Jack of All Trades, I expected nudity and sadism. I didn’t expect it to be as surreal as it is. The premise is 18 children are kidnapped and brought to an enormous mansion where 4 fascist Italian leaders and their friends will torture, rape and murder them over the course of an indeterminate amount of time (maybe 120 days, who knows?) but honestly the oddest aspect of the film is how bizarrely funny it could be. One of the fascists looks exactly like the unintelligible chicken farmer from Napoleon Dynamite. That’s not an image I can get out of my head. Another of the fascists looks exactly like Gerard Butler. Heads up, the King Leonidas look-alike defecates on the floor. I might have a difficult time falling in love with him the next time I watch P.S. I Love You. These thoughts might be exclusive to me but it’s a dark movie and this is my silver lining.

Saló would be unpalatable if consumed literally. It critiques fascism and abuse of power with metaphors and symbolism not unlike The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and possess the surreal visual style of something akin to Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. The perfectly symmetrical wide shots with deep depth of field call to mind the sublime images created by Wes Anderson and Robert Yeoman.

I can’t stress enough how the horrors of power are the central theme of the film. It’s everywhere, the children are powerless to save themselves, the fascists are powerless to control themselves, even you the audience are powerless to stop torture on the screen, even though you could easily turn it off. But to turn it off is to miss the point. You’re sitting there watching it, doing nothing. Just like the armed guards of fascist dictatorships. Just like the armed guards in Saló. I think that’s what Saló‘s director Pier Palo Pasolini wanted you to take away from the film. Watching someone forced to eat shit is horrible but what’s worse is doing nothing with your power to stop it. Early in the film a guard spits in a young girls face, she slaps him, the guards retaliate with more violence saying “Sorry, we were ordered to do this.” I think this is the core message Pasolini intended with Saló, being complicit to abuse is worse than being an abuser, because there have always been abusers but there haven’t always been people stopping abuse.

I want to briefly discuss the shocking visuals of Saló. It’s easy to be cynical about a film as outlandish and offensive as Saló. It’s even easier to write it off as pornography. It’s less easy to think about the film figuratively. The images in Saló are intended to shock the audience into thinking differently about power not to cause sexual arousal. That isn’t to say someone couldn’t be or hasn’t been aroused by Saló but that doesn’t prove it’s intended for that purpose. Those are significant distinctions between effect and intent. Think of it this way, if someone wanted to indulge fantasies related to the acts depicted in Saló they could easily find authentic content to tickle their fancy in the bowels of the internet (eww…).

Saló is a troubling film with a troubled history. Like If…. it’s a product of its time. Neo-fascists in 1970’s Italy were becoming more and more violent and Saló certainly appears to serve as a fatal inditement of those modern politics. Saló‘s director Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered three weeks before the premiere. Images of Pasolini’s bloody corpse can be seen on the front page of Italian newspapers of the time. It’s tragic, that those images of real violence and tragedy offend far fewer people than the pretend horrors in Saló.

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