Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, is available on BFI Blu-ray now.
Not all horror contains supernatural entities, serial killers or monsters who 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 the guise of control, political belief and social ideology. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, is one of these films, its visceral horror just as powerful now as it was at its world premiere in 1975. Salò defies simple genre labels; is it horror? Or is it political drama? One thing is for sure, it is not, despite accusations, sadomasochistic pornography. In fact, despite the naked bodies and the sexual acts on display, Pasolini ensures there is no titillation or sexual stimulation by placing us in the role of the voyeur.
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 of the town following Mussolini’s rescue by the Nazis. Here we meet a group of wealthy aristocrats and loyal party members who choose to imprison a group of the town’s young people for a vile social experiment in sex, torture and control.
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Salò is a stunning, brutal and challenging exploration of humanity, politics, sex and control, themes found in many of Pasolini’s works. However, unlike in his previous films, where light surrounds the darkness, Salò offers no light. Here its young characters are mere toys of a vile aristocracy as Pasolini explores the corruption of power and the unrestricted behaviour it breeds. Meanwhile, the emerging capitalist culture of a changing Italy and the fascist past merge under Pasolini’s razor-sharp scalpel, with the audience forced to become voyeurs of the unfolding horror. Here Pasolini wants us to consider our moral boundaries. Do we walk out of the film in disgust and leave those young souls to die? Or do we stay and discuss the reasons for their death? Either way, we are spectators, just like those who watch war crimes unfold.
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Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, is designed to make us squirm, forcing us to face the darkest realms of human behaviour while asking us to question the boundaries of power, privilege and wealth. 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 your attention and haunts your thoughts long after the credits roll; it is like nothing before or since – a compelling and uncomfortable portrait of human darkness from the mind of a complex genius.
Salò was to be Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film, with his brutal murder on the 2nd November 1975 coming just a few weeks before the movie’s world premiere in Paris. As a result, Salò would become his epitaph, its title forever associated with the life and violent death of one of Italy’s most controversial directors.