Peir Paolo Pasolini’s final film, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, is one of the most notorious arthouse movies ever made and frequently cited among the most disturbing movies of all time. Inspired by the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom (with a little nod to Dante’s Inferno for good measure), Salo takes place in Italy at the tail end of World War II. Four fascist libertines kidnap a group of adolescent boys and girls, bring them to a palatial estate, and then proceed to degrade, humiliate, torture, and murder them as a reckless display of their unchecked power.
Alec Kubas-Meyer and I had a lengthy discussion about the artistic merits of the film, its visual style and Pasolini’s tone, and where Salo belongs in the canon of extreme cinema and important world cinema. Somehow we even get into a tangential discussion about martial arts movies.
Read on, and abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
[The Cult Club is where Flixist’s writers expound the virtues of their favourite underground classics, spanning all nations and genres. It is a monthly series of articles looking at what made those films stand out from the pack, as well as their enduring legacy.]
Hubert: Salo is one of the grandaddies of extreme cinema, and anyone who’s curious about notoriously disturbing movies will eventually encounter Salo at some point of his or her life. But Salo feels like it comes from a different pedigree than other films frequently seen on “Most Disturbing Movies” lists like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust or the Guinea Pig series. Salo is an art movie from hell, so painterly in its unpleasantness, so carefully composed; it has more in common with Ken Russell’s The Devils (though not as manic) or the work of Lars Von Trier than I Spit on Your Grave. Maybe Salo‘s best contemporary unit of comparison is Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film, but even that movie’s extremism is so different in tone.
There’s something about Pasolini’s use of long shots during most of the sadism that gives the events of Salo a sense of absolute spiritual death. There’s also a philosophical rage in its content which can be read as anti-fascist as well as anti-capitalist–both have a tendency to reduce humans to functions or mere objects. Where would you situate it in the cult canon and the canon of extreme cinema?
Alec: It’s hard to disagree with your assessment there. Salo stands pretty much apart from everything else. If I were to choose a direct comparison, I think The Devils is probably the best. Because whereas most extreme cinema feels gratuitous for the sake of it, The Devils feels gratuitous because the world that it takes place in is gratuitous. (That film is pretty high up on my re-watch list, by the way. I got about halfway through a second viewing a couple months back and had to turn it off, but it’s been on my mind ever since.) Salo is the same sort of thing. But what makes Salo so intense is both its use of long shots and also wide shots.
It’s filmed from a distance, with everything you could possibly want (and much, much more) in the frame. And as such, there’s rarely any “immediacy” to the “action.” Your blood doesn’t get pumping. There isn’t any sort of sensory overload. You’re acutely aware of who is doing what to whom when and how. It’s voyeuristic in a very different way from most extreme films. In a way that is more fundamentally horrible, because you are a passive observer. It’s more documentarian than experiential. It’s like an anti-found footage film, in that regard. (Though that’s an odd comparison to make, since it predated the found footage concept by several years.)
Hubert: That distance may be what makes viewers feel so helpless, like all they can do is watch these teens get degraded and tortured. There’s one moment a little before the “Circle of Shit” title card comes up, signaling the next ugly chapter of Salo and a further descent into hell. One of the girls says, “I can’t take any more” like she’s giving up her will to live. And you feel it. It’s a phrase synonymous with “I want to die.” But things are only going to get worse. And at that moment, watching the movie again, even knowing the end, I got this sad chill through my body. I was struck by this terrifying realization that no one was going to save the day, there’s no hope of fighting back, and that all I could do was watch these victims be destroyed.
There’s that one scene later when it seems like one of the kids will at least be executed quickly with a pistol, but it’s not even loaded. One of the libertines gets in the boy’s face and says, “You must be stupid to think that death would be so easy. Don’t you know we intend to kill you a thousand times? To the end of eternity, if eternity can have an end.” The idea that death might be a release is turned on its head–there is only death, over and over again, and no escaping it. And all we can do is watch. Absolutely chilling. Though on the note of that scene, it’s the disgusting punchline to a contest to decide who has the best ass. Salo is full of so much sadistic and perverse humor or amusement, or at least from the point of view of the libertines. How did you feel about its fascistic comedy, like the jokes that keep getting told?
Alec: On some level, I think it could be argued that Salo is the darkest of comedies. I remember reading an IMDB trivia that said that some of the actors were absolutely shocked when they saw the final product, because the experience on set had actually been relatively light. I don’t know that that’s true, but rewatching the film I can see how (at least in parts) it might be. Certainly there is a lot of laughter by many of the characters. Early on, there is laughter during the stories, and the libertines and their accomplices laugh throughout, telling (terrible) jokes and just generally feeling pretty good about the whole thing. (Especially Lazy Eye, less so Combover.)
To them, this is pure entertainment, which is absolutely and entirely horrific, but it brings up the question of perspective. You’re seeing these actions at a distance, but you spend most of your time with the fascists. Obviously it’s not a pro-fascist film, but they are the central characters, not their victims. Their victims are there to be actors in the the play that the libertines have created and can engage in at will. For us and the victims, it’s a horrorshow, but for them it’s the best sex-comedy imaginable. And the constant jokes and the levity just makes the whole thing far more unsettling than if it was deadly serious. Actions speak louder than words, but the words in context with the actions make for a particularly disturbing combination.
Hubert: There’s such an ugly flippancy to what the libertines do and how they do it. If torture and humiliation without reprisal weren’t enough, the ability to laugh in the face of the hell they’re creating for these victims might be the ugliest demonstration of their power. Though on the note of what you said about the fascist point of view, Salo is so effective of tapping into that mindset in which anything is permissible against the powerless.
Do you remember how or when you first heard about Salo? For me it was probably 1999, and I was just starting college and really into extreme cinema and finding VHS bootlegs of stuff. (This makes me sound so old.) Salo was completely out-of-print back then, and the initial Criterion DVD release was selling on eBay for something like $250. I first saw Salo on a degraded pan-and-scan VHS around 2002 with some friends, which wasn’t so unnerving, but watching it a second time a few years ago, it was much more unnerving and effective, like I finally understood Pasolini’s filmmaking grammar.
Alec: I imagine it was during my extreme cinema phase. There was a period of a few years where I would look up lists of the Most Disturbing Films Of All Time. I look back on that now with a bit of disdain (which we discussed in our, um, discussion of cinematic garbage), but I imagine that I learned about it around the same time that I learned about Cannibal Holocaust and the others. That was probably mid 2000s, but I couldn’t put an exact date on it.
I know that I saw it for the first time after I had entered college, because I distinctly remember watching it. More specifically, I distinctly remember how little I felt while watching it. I had gone through A Serbian Film and Cannibal Holocaust and the August Underground films at that point, and I was expecting something to beat them all. It wasn’t. I remember eating Pad Thai during the coprophagia scene and thinking, “This is probably disgusting.” But the entire thing was so detached that it didn’t phase me at all. It was horrible, but the effect was kind of numbing. And it took me a while to realize just how brilliant that was.
I’m going to compare it to The Act of Killing, actually, because that film is about how mundane these horrible things are. Salo is the same way. It’s so relentless and so evil and so clinical that you just sit there, munching on Pad Thai and looking at some of the most awful (yet artistic) images ever put to celluloid.
Hubert: The Act of Killing is a great point of comparison. Salo and The Act of Killing are movies about the banality of evil, and every act of depravity, while shocking, also has an air of a common ritual or business proceeding–this isn’t murder, it’s an undertaking; this isn’t murder, it’s an act of killing. In Salo, the days have a schedule, there’s a structured repetition of stories and meals, and this sense of order allows these acts to be carried out with a kind of boredom on the part of the libertines. They can make jokes because this is like another day at the office, and maybe the most chilling aspect of that is that this could be yet another round of commonplace depravity, just the latest set of teenagers that fascistic libertines murder a thousand times over to achieve a sadistic pleasure that is never sated and continually slips into boredom. The libertines say they’re the ultimate anarchists, but this adherence to order and structure reveals them to be the ultimate fascists.
When I interviewed Joshua Oppenheimer about The Act of Killing, he mentioned how normal everything seemed to the killers he encountered. One of the anecdotes Oppenheimer shared is something he caught on camera, and it appears toward the end of his follow-up film, The Look of Silence. It’s two men recounting their killings in the place where they slaughtered hundreds of people, and then they do something so normal that it’s terrifying. ( The Look of Silence comes out later this. I saw it at last year’s New York Film Festival, and it’s probably going to be my pick for the best movie of 2015.) One of the most aphoristic lines in Salo: “Nothing is more contagious than evil.” History proves that. Evil is contagious and unstoppable.
Alec: To that point, it’s sort of interesting that Pasolini was murdered just before the release of Salo. It would have been fascinating to see how he reacted to the reaction. But more than that, I want to have seen the follow-up. The film was apparently intended to be the first in a three part “Trilogy of Death” following up his “Trilogy of Life.” To think that Salo was the start of something is simultaneously revolting and amazing. It’s entirely possible that had he lived, we would be talking about a different film entirely. (I cannot imagine what that might have been.)
But perhaps we should go back to this idea of art. What really fascinates me about Salo is the fact that it is a part of The Criterion Collection. I can’t imagine A Serbian Film or Cannibal Holocaust or any of those other horrific films getting the same level of recognition. More than anything else, that is a statement about its worth as a film. Honestly, being chosen for the Criterion Collection is about as bold a statement as can be made, at least in a certain sect of cineaste circles. All of the films are pretty much equally revolting in terms of content (maybe), but Salo stands apart. I wonder, though, if it’s a function in part of the filmmaker behind it. Pasolini was a respected director who had a history of making films that were not Salo, so his decision to take on that project makes it even more unique.
Do you think that if the exact same film had been made by a newcomer with a twisted mind, it would have the same impact on the art film community, or do you think it would be written off sort of like A Serbian Film as something that’s just grotesuqe?
Hubert: On the idea of a “Trilogy of Death” as a follow-up to his “Trilogy of Life,” I wonder if the other two Death films would have also been inspired by classic works of literature. The Trilogy of Life is blossoming with eroticism and a joy about the body, and Salo is the negation of all that and the reduction of the body to an orifice/instrument/commodity. Nearly all sex is sadism in Salo. The two exceptions being secret trysts like brief escapes from hell, but even those end badly soon after they’re discovered. These reprieves from hell are only discovered because the other victims are willing to rat out others to save their own skin. The fascists have broken any sense of solidarity and humanity among their victims, which may be their most awful triumph.
I’m trying to think of what other books might have been part of a Death Trilogy, which would also play into Pasolini’s disillusionment with capitalism. Voltaire’s Candide? George Bataille’s Story of the Eye? Titus Andronicus? Oedipus? Maybe Mein Kampf?
I think Salo‘s cachet is precisely because it was made by Pasolini. Had a no-name newcomer made the same film, it probably would have been written off by its then-contemporary audience as crass obscenity with pretensions of being called art. And yet had a newcomer made the same film, I still think it would be discussed in the future (assuming someone rediscovered it) since there’s an artfulness to the perversion that suggests a grander thesis. It’s an approach that’s much different than A Serbian Film (the most obvious modern-day heir to Salo) since Salo stands back from the horror rather than getting up close, as we mentioned. That distance that makes the evil mundane is also what makes the film more effective and more artful in what it’s trying to accomplish. If someone other than Pasolini directed it, it wouldn’t be in the Criterion Collection, that’s for sure.
I remember you mentioned a while back that you feel like A Serbian Film belongs in the Criterion Collection. For you, how does A Serbian Film (which is a metaphorical version of the decade of real-life horror that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia) compare to Salo?
Alec: The thing about these films (Cannibal Holocaust too, actually) is that once you know what the point is, you sometimes feel like it’s screaming the point in your face. Admittedly, it’s probably impossible to be simultaneously shocking and subtle, but there’s not a lot of subtlety in the presentation of their ideas. I think both subscribe to the belief that enacting any kind of social change requires you to shock the masses out of complacency, even if that means that every so often The Point Of The Film leaps out of the screen and screams in your face. A Serbian Film is far more guilty of this than Salo, but they both have it.
But what I think makes A Serbian Film so compelling in context with Salo is that they both refuse to let up on the viewer, but they do so in nearly opposite ways. Even as A Serbian Film uses closeups and shaky camera movements and all of that, you’re never left wondering what, exactly, you’re seeing. You always have enough to understand just how fucked up the entire thing is. But it’s a modern version of that. It’s like the difference between The Raid and an old Jackie Chan film. The camera in those films did almost nothing. Everything was on the actors and choreography. The Raid has excellent choreography, but the camera is a part of it too. You are a part of it and not just a passive observer.
This is the exact same thing. Had the film been made in 1975, I think it probably would have looked more like Salo (and I think if Salo had been made in 2010, it probably would look more like A Serbian Film). I think both are products of their time, taking the cinematic language and twisting it to create an affecting experience. And that’s why I think in the long term A Serbian Film will be a significant film like Salo is, because it is a representation of current cinema taken to the most extreme of extremes.
Hubert: Without getting too sidetracked on martial arts movies, I think the first Ong-Bak is the most Jackie Chan-like movie that we’re going to get post-1980s in terms of camera placement and movement in the frame. (One day we should do a Cult Club about a seminal 1970s kung-fu movie.) But yes, Salo and A Serbian Film are products of their time and their region, and their respective aesthetics are defined by that. Still, I think even just one feature film in, Spasojevic is a very different kind of filmmaker than Pasolini, but he seems more thoughtful about cinematic transgression than someone like Tom Six (The Human Centipede) who’s out to upset without trying to say something substantive.
Before we talk about the final scenes of Salo, one last digression.
It might be worth addressing the elephant in the room, which is extreme cinema as an artform, of which Salo is one of the exemplars. There’s the political dimension and aesthetic dimension to good extreme cinema that shows a social value and artistic merit that can transcend mere shock, but I wonder if there’s also a kind of cinematic machismo to it. In other words, are certain movie fans playing a game of chicken with extreme films and extreme filmmakers? I mean, seeing Salo on a list of disturbing films felt like a dare to me when I was a young man. Unless something’s changed that I’m not aware of, these sorts of movies still tend to appeal to the curiosity of teenage males and men in their twenties more than other groups of movie watchers. Is it the thrill of the forbidden, maybe? If these movies are crossing the upper limits of contemporary good taste to explore a taboo outland, are they also a proving ground for personal limits regarding bad taste?
Alec: I think this gets a bit into that discussion we had back in the day about what I deemed cinematic trash. Films that show up on Most Disturbing Lists are being sold to a very specific audience. Cannibal Holocaust and August Underground are being sold to a very specific audience. A Serbian Film is a little bit different. Salo is more different still. But I think you’re guessing high. It’s not men in their 20s. It’s kids in their teens. I was a teenager when I found the list that convinced me to watch a Cannibal Holocaust and August Underground. And though I was in my 20s when I saw Salo and A Serbian Film, those seeds were sown well before (and, as we’ve discussed, have withered quite a bit in recent years).
But Salo‘s spot on those lists should come with a huge asterisk, because it’s not a film for teens. Not just because the content is a bit much, but because the context requires, well, context. And without the context, the film’s reputation precedes it. It is not nearly as “shocking” as many other disturbing films, despite being so disturbing, for all of the reasons stated here. This is where Salo “standing out” becomes particularly relevant. It doesn’t have the fucked up appeal of Cannibal Holocaust. It’s not something that you can really watch with a bunch of friends and laugh about.
And I think that makes it a perfect litmus test, actually, along with maybe Irreversible, because they’re art films with a hardcore edge. But if you get through all of Irreversible, that says a lot more than if you just see the first few scenes and turn it off. If you actually experience Salo and feel it and wrestle with it, then that’s something different. The people who go into those films looking for sick thrills will either come out underwhelmed or transformed. They’ll see that ultraviolence can be used to provoke something more than just a reaction, which is what so much of extreme cinema wants. It doesn’t even matter what the reaction is, just that there is one. But Salo wants more than that. It wants a specific type of reaction, one that results from a very specific mindset.
And with that, I think it’s time to talk about those final scenes.
Hubert: As if the feast of human shit wasn’t infamous enough, there’s the torture-filled finale.
Watching Salo again, one of the striking things about that last sequence is where it’s held and how it’s depicted. It’s on that estate somewhere, but it’s in a place distinctly lacking the lush vegetation that’s seen elsewhere outdoors. It’s this lifeless enclosure of dirt and brick. And we’re viewing these final acts of degradation silently and from an added distance, shot from the POV of a libertine at a high window using binoculars. After the descent through the Circles of Mania, Shit, and Blood within this wretched estate, we’d arrived at the deepest circle of hell, or its deepest pit, but we’re overlooking this place from a window.
Pasolini’s use of space in these final shots is unnerving, and sound as well. (On that note, those war planes that groan in the background of some scenes are more ominous than any score.) We don’t hear any of the screams of the victims, but just the radio in the room and the occasional voice of the libertine who’s watching. And course, the creepiest of the libertines tells a joke about death since that’s been his gimmick this entire time and a cavalier display of his power. We talked about jokes earlier, and I think Pasolini winds up making laughter one of the most terrifying sounds in the film.
We never get to see what happens after this ritual of torture and murder is completed. The libertines on the ground do the can-can in hell, but there are still more tortures and more victims. There’s no clean up, no departure from the estate, no sense of the libertines exhausting their desire for murder. Instead, we have a dance between the young guards to the song that opens the movie.
I once thought there was some glimmer of hope in that final shot, but I’ve come to realize that this is a movie without any hope. The movie is its own circle of hell containing these other circles. The libertines succeed, the center of hell is just outside the window, and the future dances without doing anything about it.
Alec: The image of the young man with his tongue being pulled by pliers is one of the most recognizable from the film, I think (primarily because it was featured on the cover of Criterion’s original DVD release), but it’s hardly the most grotesque image in that sequence. After a film of horrific actions but relatively minimal violence, the bloodletting comes as a particular shock. You see a cut throat and some bullet wounds, but nothing particularly gory. It’s matter of fact and then it’s done, even if the camera lingers on that cut throat for quite some time. But in that finale, the punishments come and they come hard. As the libertines watch from the window through their little binoculars, we are treated for the first time to the real closeups of violence that the film has never given us. But it’s also the most overtly voyeuristic sequence. I mentioned before that the detached nature makes you feel a bit like a peeping tom, but in this sequence the rules change. For the first time, you are a part of it. You see through the eyes of the libertines as they revel in the torture and death of these kids. For once, you’re complicit.
As an aside, I find it fascinating that the one libertine who we see a more depressed side of throughout the film is the one who does not get to enjoy the sights from the comfort of the throne. He’s always in the thick of it.
All of this is an assault on the audience, though, the moments that truly hope to shock them out of complacency. The ending, in its apparent hopefulness, is the same. It’s resigned to failure, to the belief that the battle against fascism has been lost. These kids get to dance, as do the libertines, while the unwashed masses lie dead and dying in the dirt. They get to think about their future, about going home to their girlfriends. They get to have a future, and there will be no punishment. Even worse, you get to see them revel in it.
To quote your review of Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse: “Just how bleak can it get? None more bleak.”
Later This Month…
You’re going to get a double dose of The Cult Club this month since we had to push Salo back for the Tribeca Film Festival. And this time we’re going with much lighter fare.
With the fifth season of Louie winding down on FX, we’re going to look at a cult movie that was extremely influential to Louis CK: Robert Downey Sr.’s 1969 satire Putney Swope.
PREVIOUSLY SHOWING ON THE CULT CLUB
The Last Dragon (1985)
Tromeo and Juliet (1996)
Samurai Cop (1989)
El Mariachi (1992)
Six-String Samurai (1998)