“120 Days of Sodom,” the rapacious weave of sexual excess and debauchery penned by Marquis de Sade in the late 1700s, didn’t receive a commercial publishing until the 20th century, mostly in part because of its perceived depraved pornographic content.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s cinematic rendering of de Sade’s carnal excursion gone gonzo some 200 years later has often been called the most reviled film of all time, not just because of its stark, graphic nature, but more so for its aloof dehumanized detachment. Still, much like de Sade, with such infamy credited to his name, Pasolini looms a major cultural icon bridging zeitgeists, ideologies and art forms.
“Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” his final work, remains a hot topic of discussion, most recently rekindled after Criterion Collection’s reissue on DVD and Blu-ray in 2011, and is also part of the Harvard Film Archive‘s ongoing “Furious and Furiouser” series about maverick filmmaking outside the studio system in the ’70s. The program, inspired by the anti-Hollywood ire of Sam Peckinpah, includes such eclectic and wide ranging works as Larisa Shepitko’s “The Ascent,” Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation,” Robert Bresson’s “The Devil, Probably” and even “Saturday Night Fever.”
In a historical context, it’s ironic that “Salò” was Pasolini’s film. The film (and de Sade’s underlying work) pulls heavily from Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” most notably the “Circle of S—” and “Circle of Blood” chapters that conclude the work. Leading up to those two fine portrayals of fecal feasting and slow homicidal executions (genital burning, sodomy to expiration, scalping and dismemberment) there’s a succession of bacchanal orgies where those subjugated to the whim of the ruling few, must entertain or provide services of sensual pleasuring, and should they balk or fail, the discipline is swift, cruel and even lethal.
Pasolini, a known homosexual and something of a libertine, didn’t live to see his film’s controversial ripple throughout the world (it was banned in many countries upon its initial release in 1975). He was murdered outside Rome, run over (repeatedly) by his own Alfa Romeo driven by a 17-year-old hustler who claimed Pasolini picked him up and made unwanted sexual advances (even with a confession there remains much conjecture as to the nature of events).
Given grim dithyrambs of debasement in “Salò,” the film’s being is ultimately more eerily prophetic than sadistically ironic. The great director Michelangelo Antonioni (“The Passenger” and “L’Avventura”), a contemporary countryman of Pasolini, remarked that the poet-turned-filmmaker, “was the victim of his own characters.”
Besides being openly gay, Pasolini was also a leftist with Marxist leanings, something echoed throughout his works depicting the ongoing struggle against an oppressive (Italian) government, especially the Fascists during the Second World War (Pasolini himself served briefly in the military and was at one point taken prisoner by the Germans — later escaping by donning a disguise).
To bring de Sade’s wicked tale of four French aristocrats realizing their corrupt fantasies in a medieval chateau to the screen, Pasolini, set his “120 Days of Sodom” in a remote Italian villa during the period ending the Second World War when the Fascists were in a state of disarray, something well-rendered in Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic “1900” (made around the same time and with an eclectic cast that featured Shelley Winters, Donald Sutherland, Burt Lancaster, Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu). Supplanting the four aristocrats in Pasolini’s vision were the pillars of the loathed regime — the Bishop, the Duke, the Magistrate and the President — who collectively, with the aide of a few soldiers and middle-aged harlots, kidnap 18 young men and women for their end-of-power depravity play.
Many of Pasolini’s other works, “The Hawks and the Sparrows” (1966) and “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964), mine the director’s struggle with the church, his Catholic upbringing and the inherent conflict with his sexual identity. There’s a clear undercurrent of it in “Salò,” but the film is mostly a pointed ideological takedown of decadence, entitlement and power abuse. Beyond the tyranny of genocide or systemic mass murder, it’s fairly hard to top the wishful defilement of another human by forcing them into acts of sodomy and coprophagy under the duress of a slow torturous death.
As far as its X/NC-17 rated graphicness, “Salò” is both poetically spare and brutally cutting. There’s an arty aesthetic to it that’s absent from other works hovering around that tawdry fine line between art and porn like “Caligula.” It’s also void of the kind of human intimacy and reflective introspect that something like Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” or Gaspar Noé’s “Irréversible” possess. And while it has the baroque luridness of the notorious 1980 faux Italian snuff film “Cannibal Holocaust,” it is social commentary with a blade and a purpose. It may not be as obvious or overt as Bertolucci’s “The Conformist,” but the markings of satire and farce are clearly there and in the boldly framed corners.
Directors Michael Haneke (“Funny Games” and “The White Ribbon”) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“The Marriage of Maria Braun” and “The American Soldier”) have both claimed “Salò” as one of their all-time favorites. If your stomach’s in the right order and your mind open, you can judge the acerbic pornographic poetry of struggle for yourself Monday night.