Movies From The Library: Saló: or The 120 Days of Sodom

Will SorgEntertainment Columnist

Trigger Warning

The following article contains brief mentions of physical and sexual assault and abuse

The final film of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini is a film that is steeped in controversy. “Saló: or the 120 Days of Sodom” is partially based off of an unfinished novel by Marquis De Sade, the man that inspired the creation of the word sadism. It follows four members of the ruling class in fascist World War II Italy as they abuse a group of kidnapped teenagers in their opulent mansion. Over the course of the two-hour runtime the fascists and their entourage of soldiers and sex workers torment their victims.“Saló” has a reputation of being difficult to watch: the fascists perform acts of violence, both sexual and emotional with a level of detached banality that adds to the already disturbing atmosphere. Each scene is a slow escalation of depravity and perversion; by the end one wonders what compels a filmmaker to create a film with such dark, nearly exploitative subject matter. 

 

“Saló” is a deeply personal film. The content is so transgressive because Pasolini sought to draw parallels between his film and the real world fascists of Italy. Pasolini lived through World War II, his brother was murdered in the the town of Saló and this film came out only twenty years after World War II ended. The film very specifically tries to make the victims and the fascists faceless analogs for the real world. The four fascists are never given names, instead they are identified by their status. They are essentially the main characters of the film and yet the only thing we learn about them is that they are a duke, a bishop, a magistrate and the President. Although the victims are often named they are never given enough screen time for us to connect to them or even find out much about their personalities. This creates a clinical feeling of detachment from the story, as if we are simultaneously active viewers of the atrocities, yet also incapable of influencing or even really fully understanding the situation. 

 

Pasolini himself saw the film as a demonstration of how the fascist, Nazi, puppet state in Northern Italy treated the people it oppressed. The sexual and physical abuse by the four main characters served as a metaphor for the abuses of power the ruling class commits against the masses. The film serves as commentary on a variety of difficult subjects: from the commodification and othering of the human being, to the absurdity of excess demonstrated by the fascists. The film is a scathing critique of the ruling class from any time or place but the setting of the town of Saló in the 1940s is especially powerful as Saló served as the capital of Benito Mussolini’s government. Even without its difficult subject matter, it is unsurprising that “Saló” has been banned and censored throughout the world. It confronts, rather fearlessly, that throughout history the ruling class and its supporters have been able to exploit and destroy people’s lives with little consequence. When the film was released there were former fascist soldiers and government workers living in Italy who had faced no investigation into their role in the regime. This film is made because of that lack of confrontation. It forces its viewers to confront the fact that there were normal people, who lived normal lives, that committed atrocities using the excuse of duty to their nation. “Saló” is an uncomfortable film that is certainly not something most people will want to watch. However its uncompromising representation of the evils of power and fascism makes it a undeniably important piece of film history.

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