Wednesday 13 February 2013

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom: A Barrel of Shit-Smeared Laughs

There is no cinematic dare that is in quite the same league as Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom. Banned in most countries for most of it's lifetime, it walks the line between gratuitous torture porn and thoughtful art house cinema. Nothing proves that point better than the bizarre Australian law that declares it illegal to screen the film without the accompanying bonus features to put the film in it's proper context.

Watching the film now, with all the hype surrounding it, the most stressful aspect is perhaps the idea that you won't be traumatised enough. Watching the brutality and depravity on display, it feels like any response short of vomiting and crying would make me an unfeeling monster. Austrian moralist director Michael Haneke would probably brow-beat me for displaying any emotion other than disgust. However as distressing and terrifying as the film is, it is not quite as shocking and horrifying as it's reputation. There's something more sinister beyond that.

Pasolini uses the Marquis De Sade's outpouring of id in the face of  oppression and applies it to corrupt contemporary Italian politics and the legacy of Mussolini's fascism. Unlike the unconvincing political metaphor's of grizzly movies like Hostel and A Serbian Film, Salo draws a very clear and immediate connection between the depicted depravity and it's political themes, lending credence to the theory that Pasolini was politically assassinated. The film is a period piece about the end of fascist Italy and the sadistic men of power wax lyrical about political and moral philosophy while raping and torturing teenagers. There's no subtlety at play: Pasolini plays out the opulent and selfish indulgence of fascism (and perhaps a corrupt capitalist state) to it's most hideous extreme. The film is much more powerful for this reason and the content is so vile and off-putting that no subtlety would be able to escape anyway.

Salo is divided into four chapters, with the first dedicated to rounding up the doomed youth and the rest detailing their fates. The Circle of Manias is the most overtly sexual, filled with humiliating mind games and almost erotic acts of teasing. Things kick up a notch in the Circle of Shit where things turn to... shit.
In the most infamous scene of the film, a girl is punished for mourning her dead mother by being forced to eat faeces. It's an extremely distressing moment, the camera not pulling away for discretion and the girl exhibiting the most human outburst of misery in an otherwise cold film. After this point there is nowhere to go, I could not be disturbed by anything else Pasolini had to throw at me, and he had a lot. In the climactic Circle of Blood, the rape and torture is seen through the binoculars of the far-removed men of power, nicely capturing the audiences detachment in the moment. The victims, the perpetrators, Italy as a whole and even the viewer lost their humanity about half way through, so the absurdly brutal finale feels inevitable and unimpassioned. This is why Salo is one of the most effective depictions of dehumanisation, it really takes the audience into it's perverted world.

There's a lot more to Salo then can be summarised here and it is definitely a film worth seeing if you can stomach it. Perhaps the most perverse thing is, I feel I should one day watch it again.

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