Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom  

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Salò (as the film is commonly abbreviated) is set in the Republic of Salò, the Fascist rump state which was set up in the German-occupied portion of Italy in 1944. The film is divided into four segments that loosely parallel Dante's Inferno: Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Feces and the Circle of Blood.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom) is a 1975 film by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, based on the book 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade. Because of its scenes of intensely sadistic graphic violence, the movie was extremely controversial upon its release, and remains banned in several countries to this day. It is widely regarded as one of the most disturbing films ever made. Pasolini was killed shortly before Salò was released. "Some films", says Haneke, have had "a profound influence on my mental health and stability." He mentions Paolini’s Salò (1975) as one such film and explains that some people even speak of cinema in terms of pre- and post-Salò.

Contents

Production

Source material

Salò transposes the setting of De Sade's book from 18th century France to the last days of Mussolini's regime in the Republic of Salò. However, despite the horrors that it shows (rape, torture, and mutilation), it can barely touch the perversions listed in the book, which include extensive sexual and physical abuse of children.

While the book provides the most important foundations of Salò, the events in the movie draw as much on Pasolini's own life as on de Sade's novel. Pasolini spent part of his early twenties in the Republic of Salò. During this time he witnessed a great many cruelties on the part of the Fascist collaborationist forces of the Salò Republic. Pasolini’s life followed a strange course of early experimentation and constant struggle. Growing up in Bologna and Friuli, Pasolini was introduced to a great many leftist examples in mass culture from an early age. He began writing at age seven, heavily under the influence of French poet Arthur Rimbaud. His writing quickly began to incorporate certain aspects of his personal life, mainly dealing with constant familial struggles and moving from city to city.

After studying major literary giants in high school, Pasolini enrolled in the University of Bologna for further education. Many of his memories of the experience led to the conceptualization of Salò. He also claimed that the film was highly symbolic and metaphorical; for instance, that the coprophagia scenes were an indictment of mass-produced foods, which he labeled "useless refuse."

Although his career, in both film and literature, was highly prolific and far-reaching, Pasolini dealt with some major constants within his work. His first published novel in 1955 dealt with the concept of pimps and scandals within a world of prostitution. The reception of this first novel, titled Ragazzi di vita, created much scandal and brought about subsequent charges of obscenity.

One of his first major films, Accattone (1961), dealt with similar issues and was also received by an unwelcoming audience, who demanded harsher codes of censorship. It is hard to quickly sum up the vast amount of work which Pasolini created throughout his lifetime, but it becomes clear that so much of it focused around a very personal attachment to subject matter, as well as overt sexual undertones.

Plot and themes

Salò (as the film is commonly abbreviated) is set in the Republic of Salò, the Fascist rump state which was set up in the German-occupied portion of Italy in 1944. The film is divided into four segments that loosely parallel Dante's Inferno: Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Feces and the Circle of Blood.

Four men of power, referred to as the Duke (Duc de Blangis), the Bishop, the Magistrate (Curval), and the President agree to marry each other's daughters as the first step in a debauched ritual. With the aid of several young male collaborators, they kidnap eighteen young men and women (nine male, nine female), and take them to a palace near Marzabotto. With them are four middle-aged prostitutes, also collaborators, whose function will be to recount various arousing stories for the men of power, and who will in turn exploit their victims sexually and sadistically.

The film depicts the many days spent at the palace, during which time the four men of power devise increasingly abhorrent tortures and humiliations for their own pleasure. In one of the film's most infamous scenes, a young woman is forced to eat the feces of the Duke; later, the other victims are presented with a giant meal of human feces (the "feces" were created with chocolate sauce and orange marmalade). At the end of the film, the victims who chose not to collaborate with their tormentors are murdered in various gruesome ways: scalping, branding, and having their tongues (see also Franco Merli) and eyes cut out.

The film's treatment of sexuality

A persistent theme of Salò is the degradation and commodification of the human body. Throughout the film the human body is turned into something of lesser value. There is no such thing as a private sexual encounter throughout the film.

Much of the film lacks what most erotic cinema ultimately uses towards its purpose, which could be viewed as "cinematic foreplay": making sexual acts seem either passionate or exciting.

In Salò every single bit of possible intrigue involving the sexual acts is absent. Therefore, no one obtains any type of pleasure, and the acts could be viewed as almost completely pointless. This could be why Salò has been referred to as a film which presents the "death of sex" or a "funeral dirge" of eroticism in the midst of its mass commercialization (Musatti 1982, 131; Chapier 1975-6, 116).

Reception

Controversy

Controversy over the film exists to this day, with many praising the film for its fearlessness and willingness to contemplate the unthinkable, while others condemn it roundly for being little more than a pretentious exploitation movie.

The film has been banned in several countries due to its graphic portrayals of rape, torture and murder—mainly that of people suspected to be younger than 18 years of age. Many questions about the film's legality have been raised—namely, whether or not the actors and actresses that participated in the (admittedly simulated) sexual or violent acts in the film were of the age of consent.

The fact that Salò was set in a Fascist period makes many of the sadomasochistic aspects of the film even harder to bear than in the original novel. This setting and the emphasis on perverse consumption connects the brutality of Fascism to what Pasolini saw as the brutalizing effects of the commodification of sexuality under late capitalism.

It was banned in Australia in 1976, unbanned in 1993 and rebanned in 1998 . In 1994, an undercover police officer in Cincinnati, OH, rented the film at a local gay bookstore, then arrested the proprietors for pandering. A large group of artists, including Martin Scorsese and Alec Baldwin, and scholars signed onto a brief arguing the film's artistic merits. Eventually, the case was thrown out on a technicality.

For a time the film was unavailable in many countries, although it is now available uncut on DVD in the United Kingdom, France, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Italy,Austria and Germany.

In a 2006 readers' poll by Time Out magazine, Salo was voted the most controversial film ever made.

Documentaries about the film

An exhibition of photographs by Fabian Cevallos depicting scenes which were edited out of the film was displayed in 2005 in Rome.

Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Bertolucci released a documentary in 2006, Pasolini prossimo nostro, based on an interview with Pasolini done on the set of Salo in 1975. The documentary also includes photographs taken on set of the film.

The film is also the subject of a 2001 documentary written and directed by Mark Kermode.

Versions

Several versions of the film exist. The film originally ran approximately 145 minutes, but Pasolini himself removed 25 minutes to help the pacing. The longest available version is the widely sold DVD from the BFI, which features a short scene usually missing from other prints -- during the first wedding ceremony, one of the masters quotes a poem by Gottfried Benn.

The film has run into intermittent legal trouble in the United States. Criterion Collection laserdisc and DVD editions were released for North America; however, the DVD was shortly thereafter taken out of print due to conflicts with Pasolini's estate over the licensing to the film. As a result, their release of the film in 1998 on DVD has created a great deal of interest because of its rarity. It is so rare that it has been labelled by some as, possibly, the rarest DVD in the world. Whilst many of Criterion's discontinued titles have became much sought after, Salò has generally seen prices for an original copy range from US $250 to US $1000. Due to the rarity of the title many bootleg copies are routinely passed off as originals. Ironically, despite all this, the quality of the DVD is quite inferior by today's standards (most notably, there is a green tinge to the video). A recent entry on the Criterion Collection's blog, On Five, revealed that they have recently regained the rights and are working on re-releasing the film; further details are unknown.

In addition to the widely available BFI edition (which is somewhat better than the Criterion edition and includes the additional missing scene), there is also a French version distributed by Gaumont Columbia Tristar Home Video which features a restored high definition transfer and color correction, and is vastly superior to both the Criterion and BFI versions. However, it lacks English subtitles.

A Hawaii-based film company, HK Flix, released Salo through distributor Euro Cult in NTSC format sometime in 2007. It is claimed to be the uncut Criterion release, with improved quality. This is basically a NTSC version of the BFI DVD, with a factory glitch in it approximately 01:47:19 into the film. However, it does not match the Gaumont quality and is still missing a scene. The cover depicts a sketch of Pasolini wearing sunglasses, with Paolo Bonacelli's name printed next to the sketch. Although there are charges that this is a bootleg, Euro Cult has insisted that they are legally allowed to release the film on DVD in the United States.




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