Directed by: PIER PAOLO PASOLINI
1975, TSPDT Rank #198
If Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life was a celebration of hedonism and sexual freedom in the medieval era, Salò suggests that these qualities have been corrupted by the ruling classes in the modern era. The film transposes the Marquis de Sade's infamous novel, The 120 Days of Sodom, to the Republic of Salò, the fascist regime through which Mussolini ruled Northern Italy with the support of the Nazis between 1943 and 1945. The plot, which follows four fascist leaders as they degrade and torture sixteen lower-class girls and boys, is remarkably similar to Sade's novel, essentially equating the upper-class depravity of libertinism with fascism.
Salò has long been considered one of the most shocking and disturbing films of all time (one of the reasons I had not seen it before now), but while much of its more superficial shock value has worn off due to the recent arrival of "torture porn" films like Hostel and The Human Centipede, what remains most disturbing about the film is its examination of the inherent evil of modern power structures. In fact, beneath every act perpetrated by the four fascists lies a sick satisfaction derived from the feeling of having power over the powerless. During one bout of particularly humiliating torture, one of the men notes that it is his "social privilege" that excites him, and that without inequality, there can be no true happiness.
Although his films were always influenced by his Marxist views, with Salò, Pasolini's philosophy took a decidedly dark turn. Here he makes the grim suggestion that victims are often complicit in their oppression, with the simultaneous assumption that these willing victims are the ones who will eventually become oppressors of others. Those who resist are shown to have little besides a cruel and painful death ahead of them, devoid of honor or dignity, with its only value being to provide the perpetrators and their collaborators with entertainment. Within this context, it seems that Pasolini had abandoned the idea that redemption was possible for humanity, arriving instead at the conclusion that cruelty only gives way to more cruelty in a bottomless downward spiral of meaningless depravity.
Pasolini described Salò as not only a critique of fascism, but of modern society as a whole. He spared no one in his unrelentingly pessimistic vision of humanity, least of all the audiences who would see the film in the aftermath of his brutal murder by a male prostitute only days before the film's premiere. In witnessing the vile events portrayed in the film, without a single protagonist or sympathetic character to identify with, the viewer also becomes implicated in them - as a passive spectator of the brutal and disgusting spectacle which the film presents. While he probably meant this film as more of an angry personal statement than a final testament, Salò ended up becoming both - one of the most uncompromising films ever made as well as a definitively disturbing look at the corrupting nature of modern power structures.