Seldom has the terrifying banality of evil been so forcefully depicted on screen as in Italian iconoclast Pier Paolo Pasolini's filmed testament, an oppressive, claustrophobic setting of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom in the final throes of WWII Italian fascism. Banned and/or censored in many places and still today a discomfiting, disquieting experience, Salò is not just an immediate, visceral one but especially an intellectual, allegorical one.

     The tale of four dignitaries that round up a group of local boys and girls to be subjected to an endless series of depraved games is obviously meant to resonate with the horrors of World War II and absolute power, but also with the subsequent oblivion and forgetfulness of them. Mr. Pasolini, though, does not forget, neither does he stop there; despite all the hullabaloo surrounding the film's disturbingly graphic depictions of coprophilia or torture, the offending visuals are actually few and far between and it's the spoken word that fleshes out the horror and makes it more disturbing. The continuous, endless narration, quoting at length from literary criticism works from Roland Barthes or Pierre Klossowski, creates a hypnotic vortex of humiliation and suggestion that heightens the film's increasingly progressing oppressiveness. The muted, bourgeois ambiance of the prologue and of the stately villa outside Salò - the site of Mussolini's Fascist Republic in the last days of WWII Italy - where everything takes place inexorably give way to a grotesque, claustrophobic entropy. As the unholy pleasures chased by the four men and their four female entertainers spiral into an endless loop of humiliation and sadism, the "little death" usually identified with the physical orgasm becomes purely mental, multiplied a thousandfold until nothing else remains but the sheer fatigue of addictive, self-consuming voyeurism.

     Designed as a nihilistic counterpoint to his earlier "trilogy of life" and as a first step in a "trilogy of death" that the director's brutal death shortly before the film's premiere in late 1975 left forever unfinished, Salò is a prime example of purely illustrative, intellectual film-making. Mr. Pasolini's geometric, almost neutral setups are essentially functional, merely at the service of the film's theoretical agenda of meditation on the nature and banality of power and evil, but have lost none of their capacity to disturb. It may no longer be necessarily shocking, but few films remain as thoughtfully provocative as this.

Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti, Caterina Boratto, Elsa de Giorgi, Hélène Surgère, Sonia Saviange.
     Director, Pier Paolo Pasolini; screenplay, Mr. Pasolini with Sergio Citti, from the book by the Marquis de Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom; cinematography, Tonino delli Colli (colour by Technicolor); musical director, Ennio Morricone; production designer, Dante Ferretti; costume designer, Danilo Donati; editors, Nino Baragli, Enzo Ocone; producer, Alberto Grimaldi (Produzione Europee Associate, Les Productions Artistes Associés), Italy/France, 1975, 117 minutes.
     Screened: Cinemateca Portuguesa - Dr. Félix Ribeiro Theatre, Lisbon, February 10th 2012. 

Please note: the trailer below includes images that may shock or disturb some viewers.


Popular Posts