Friday, August 22, 2008

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

So here’s how one of the older reviews of this film that I found on IMDB is titled: “A sick disgusting piece of garbage.” Needless to say, this viewer gave it the minimum one star out of ten to register his disapproval. I gave it nine out of ten for being one of the most brutal, shocking and purely unpleasant films I’ve ever seen – but one with a point mind you – and even so I agree with the other reviewer, with one minor caveat, the film’s got an ideology and that makes it so much more effective and powerful than the exploitative trash that people take it to be.
There are two basic opinions about this film and very few that diverge from them. One calls it, as above, worthless trash, the other finds it a bracing and very difficult to watch piece of art about the limits of human cruelty and a denouncement of fascism.
How do you talk about violence in a film without depicting it? How do you convey the dehumanizing power of fascism without making it seem at any single moment glamorous, enviable, or attractive to some? Every anti-war film – except this one, if you choose to view it as such – makes war at some point seem dramatic or exciting. Not so here, and the resulting despair is what makes it more powerful. The people on-screen are debased, made to feel inhuman, and treated brutally – the bulk of the film is a shocking succession of images of mental, sexual and physical torture of a group of young people by a group of fascists supported by a small armed guard and secluded in a remote villa. I don’t view it as exploitation because it’s not simply there to shock or titillate you, to play a game of one-upsmanship wherein the filmmakers try to see what the viewer can take. The increasingly violent and graphic torments do push buttons but not so Pasolini can have a chuckle that you couldn’t handle what he’s dishing out. He’s doing his best to tear through any distancing the viewer may try to put between him/herself and the ideas of the worst of man’s inhumanity toward man – it’s no accident that the film is set in the Fascist period of Italy in the mid-40’s, when the Nazi-occupied Republic of Salò was the capital of Mussolini’s Italian Socialst Republic.
Hearing about brutality in war and witnessing the extremes that it actually entails are two very different things and rather than coating that brutality in some moralistic gauze, like most films about extremes of violence, Pasolini chooses to present the rawest, most hideous examples he can find – often taken from the novel that lends the film the rest of its title, the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom.
Suffice to say that this film is not for everyone. It’s a cathartic experience to watch the relentless parade of cruelty on-screen and if you’re not interested, I understand. If you see it and rate it one star out of ten only because a zero-star option was not available, I understand. If something in you wants to know about these things, wants to see the naked face of horror, here it is, ready to leave an indelible mark on you.

No comments: