The Original Aristocrats Joke
A film that has been banned in many countries, the ban has only been lifted in the past year with the arrival of a lovingly created 2 disc BFI edition. In Australia it is still banned. Twice. In Ohio a store owner was arrested for selling a copy only to have Alec Baldwin, Martin Scorsese among others signed a legal brief noting the film's artistic merit and the case was dismissed.
So why is his film so controversial? Is it the nudity?Rape? Feces consumption? Torture? Sodomy? Eye gouging? Tongue slicing? Golden shower? The many references to atrocious acts of paedophilia? Obviously these themes can touch a nerve with many people but I think what really pushes Salo over the edge from being offensive to downright disturbing is how it's played out.
Adapted from The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade (where the word 'sadistic' comes from) but based in Nazi Italy. When four rich and powerful men decide to marry each other's daughters they celebrate by kidnapping 18 young men and women, taking them to a palace and repeatedly raping, torturing and humiliating them. All for their own pleasure.
What is so disturbing about the whole thing is the attitude of the men. They seem to take their nihilistic pleasure vacation extremely seriously. As if there is some righteous goal. But there is no goal. Even their fake weddings and best arse competitions are dealt with straight faces.
It's also extremely objective, despite their acts these men are not vilified by the director through music or lighting. in fact very few cinematic tools are used making it all to easy to forget your watching a film. It's quite immersing and for me reminded me of a nightmare where something bizarre and atrocious is happening but observers aren't reacting in the appropriate manner. It's so objective that much of the climax is viewed through binoculars from afar.
It has been dismissed as pretentious exploitation, but there is usually a giddy thrill in exploitation, where you are entertained and can't wait to see what's going to happen next. Not here. It's hard to watch and quite depressing, it's not entertaining. A subject matter can only be as entertaining as the director wants it to be, Pasolinni has no interest in guilty pleasure here. He almost wants you to hate this film and wish the end would come soon, he makes you wish for a Hollywood ending with the cavalry gloriously arriving from nowhere to end this nightmare.
In short it's a repugnant film that you won't enjoy but won't be able to get out of your head. Not for everyone, but fascinating.