Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

Salo or 120 Days of Sodom is fucking hard. Like, it's a hard movie to discuss. The majority of the community of people that see it either like it because it's fucked up or hate it because it's fucked up. On the other hand, I hear the argument more times than I'd care to that this film is 'gratuitous' 'boring' and 'void of intellectual backbone.' So basically there's a large group of people dismissing the movie and saying it's stupid.

As with a lot movies that I feel really strongly towards, I guess I kinda get it. I mean, as I said in the opening of this entry, Salo is fucking hard. It's more than just a challenging movie, it's almost a cinematic right of passage. Watching Salo for the first time is more an experience than a movie, because the notoriety of the film precedes it, which I doubt Pasolini gave a shit about.

As hard as it may be, Salo is a movie you have to watch twice, which proves to be a challenge because the movie is designed to repel and disgust you at a constant rate. But watching it twice is a sorta crucial element to the process of meeting the movie halfway, and you should do that with cinema. Even the trashiest of cinema has a mentality and that's something worth understanding.

The first time you watch this film it completely acts upon the desire to see the most fucked up movie ever made, which it is. So we tend to read the film on that basis (for which it delivers in strides). However on the second watch (while still repelling) we know what to expect, we know how the film is structured, and we can start to engage the film intellectually, ya know, as art. And make no mistake, Salo is a work of art.

The films complexities hide under this expectation that the movie is simple, because it seems all the movies we see now are sorta simple. That's not some diatribe about how 'kids these days don't understand cinema' but rather, the young population today doesn't understand transgression quite like previous generations. And hey, maybe that'll change now that we have a new fearless leader scaring the ever loving shit out of the country. But alas, the current state is this: If Salo was made today, would it have any impact whatsoever? Follow up question: If Citizen Kane was made today, would it have the same impact it did upon it's release?

I know that seems like an obvious false equivalency, and to be honest with you, it is. It's comparing apples to turds, but the point remains the same: CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. I hear this argument a lot as well, that art should stand independent of it's time period and context to be good art. Besides the fact that I am not really concerned with 'the good' I think this is somewhat obviously false. Go look at Baroque paintings now and try to apply them to your life. You'll stare at the art and say 'oh boy, is this a beautiful painting.' But it was meaningful to culture in the 1600s, that's why it's in a fucking gallery.

So context has a lot to do with how we view art within the time that it was created, and upon getting those intentions, understanding the inner workings of the film, and how culture responded to it you can start to apply it more clearly to the time in which we live. But all that aside, Salo is still a relevant depiction of the perpetrator/victim relationship. Something I hear about Salo in particular, is that they know what it's saying immediately, and to an extent, yes, we do. But do we really?

I find that the film s dangerously even handed and nuanced, up until the end which is fucking terrifying. The Duke character in the film is presented as a warm sorta guy, with a dangerous alternative psychology that surfaces throughout. But there's a victim in the film that honestly loves him, they share so many warm moments. How the fuck do you justify that in your brutal torture/rape movie? Well that's just the dangerous nuance at play in Pasolini's work, and that's why, no matter what you think you know, you don't know shit.

Does Pasolini think the Duke is a horrible, disgusting fuck? Absolutely, but by presenting him as a well rounded character rather than some flat hateful fuck he makes the character so much scarier. Because we can relate to him at times. We can connect with his character. He is like us, sometimes, but he is capable of these awful, terrible, unspeakable things...are we capable of that as well? This is the ultimate terror of Salo or 120 Days of Sodom.

Not only is that film a story about these awful fascists brutalizing young people, but it stakes them all as people in which we could easily be. So upon this frame sits the most important part of the whole film. It's not the bourgeois, it's not the victims, it's the soldiers that are just doing their jobs here and that's where the movie goes from fucked up to profoundly fucked up.

This is where some context is dire. The film was released in 1975, taking place around 30ish years after World War 2. Think about that for more than a second. Pasolini was living during the time in which his native Italy was under fascist control, and following the war, what happened to all those Italian soldiers? They came home, took off their uniforms and went back to their regular lives. Given the unbearably horrors of the war and fascist rule, that must be fucking terrifying. To be Pasolini in the 1960s and 70s, meant he would be navigating his native Italy full of people that may have committed some unforgivable atrocities, who just went back to their day to day lives. Ho-ly shit.

Now you can clearly see the fuel for Salo. The end of the movie is incredibly pointed about this aspect. The soldiers that were just doing their jobs in Salo, actively participating in the rape, torture, murder (not to mention the shit eating), went home after the war, took off their uniform and went back to their day-to-day life. This is hard to justify in your mind, particularly after seeing the film, and it makes the whole thing so goddamn clear to me. Pasolini sets up the most atrocious crimes against humanity ever put to film (in a nuanced way!) then has characters that participate in the background, then in the unmistakeable climax, has them dance together whilst the libertines are murdered and tortured outside and talk about their girlfriends back home. The girlfriends they will most likely see very soon as the war is coming to an end. The girlfriends who will never fucking know about the 120 days they spent raping, torturing and murdering teens who did NOTHING wrong.

This is Pasolini's flame. This is the backbone for the film and this is why it's lasted so long. This is why the movie will live forever as some of the most shocking shit ever put to film. Because it poetically puts together a scenario in which we participate, and never really have the courage to discuss that participation.

The film may be an experience in the sense that it is something you have to see if not just for how shocking it is, but it's also a challenging and painful art film made by a man who fucking died for it. And when you put together what he really thought about his fellow countrymen as depicted in Salo, you start to realize why he was murdered.


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