Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, is available on BFI Blu-ray now.
Not all horror contains supernatural entities, serial killers or monsters that lurk under the bed. Some of the most potent gutwrenching horrors explore the human mind and our ability to enact heinous acts of violence under a veil of control, political belief and social ideology. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, is one of these films, its visceral power echoing over the years since its world premiere in 1975. However, one question remains, is Salò a horror movie? This question is impossible to answer, as Salò defies any simple genre labels, but one thing it isn’t, despite the accusations, is sadomasochistic pornography. There is nothing remotely sexually stimulating in the events Pasolini creates, despite the naked bodies, sexual acts and depravity on display.
In adapting the Marquis de Sade’s 18th-century novel, Pasolini would also embrace Dante’s Divine Comedy. But, to ensure Salò found a contemporary voice in modern history, Pasolini opted to set his film in the small town of Salò, Italy. It was here, in 1944, that a corrupt interim government took control. Its creation, the result of Mussolini’s rescue by the Nazi’s from Italian partisans. And it’s here we meet a group of wealthy aristocrats and loyal party members who choose to imprison a group of the town’s young people.
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Salò was to be Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film, his brutal murder on 2nd November 1975 coming just a few weeks before the movie’s world premiere in Paris. In many ways, this led Salò to become an epitaph, its title forever associated with the life and death of one of Italy’s most famous and controversial directors. But, just like Pasolini’s previous films, Salò is a masterful exploration of humanity, politics and human behaviour.
However, unlike Pasolini’s previous films, Salò is bathed in existential darkness. Its young characters, unable to escape their roles, as mere toys of a vile aristocracy. Salò asks us all to explore the corruption of power on both the young and old. The atrocities of this unrestricted power, wealth and politics laid bare for all to see. But, it also takes a razor-sharp scalpel to the newly emerging capitalist culture of a changing Italy. This makes Pasolini’s final film both unique, disturbing and uncomfortably compelling as he dissects fascism and capitalism in unison. The audience, pushed into the role of a voyeur, as the films final scenes challenge our passive role in watching the horrific events unfurl.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, is designed to make us squirm, forcing us to face the darkest realms of human behaviour. While at the same time asking us to question the boundaries of power, privilege and wealth. Its core messages, just as relevant today as they were in 1975. However, this is not a film for the faint-hearted, nor is it a film that should be watched out of mere curiosity. Pasolini’s final masterpiece demands our attention and is ultimately as sickening as it is sublime. It haunts your thoughts long after the credits roll and asks you to question the very boundaries of cinema as art. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, is like nothing before or since; a compelling and uncomfortable portrait of humanity’s darkest reaches from the mind of a complex genius.