Relocating the Marquis de Sade’s notorious novel, 120 Days of Sodom, to wartime Italy – specifically the short-lived Republic of Salò where Mussolini made a last stand at the end of World War II – this film has become synonymous with sexual deviance and bestial violence. Yet, Pier Paolo Pasolini had loftier ambitions than simply shocking the critics who thought his work obscene.
The plot here is brutishly simple: a group of fascist dignitaries hole up in a remote castle, intent on enacting their unspeakably heinous fantasies using a group of attractive young captives of both sexes, subjecting them to a series of sexual tortures and humiliations.
But the action is, in fact, a political metaphor, with each of the men representing a social pillar that had delivered the nation into the hands of the Fascists – the law, the merchants, the aristocracy and the church.
The film contains some of the most nauseating sexual encounters ever simulated on film. Shit is eaten. Tongues are severed, eyeballs are gouged out, genitals burn . . . but degradation is often viewed from a distance or allowed to continue off-screen, part of Pasolini’s strategy for making the audience uncomfortably aware of its own passivity. So devastating, it’s almost unwatchable.
All is set to the music of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, which Pasolini considered Fascist music, and a reading of the Cantos of Ezra Pound, the American poet who supported Mussolini.
Saló was to be director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film. He was brutally murdered in November 1975 with his mutilated and disfigured body discovered on the beach near the shantytown at Ostia. He was just 51.
Uberto Paulo Quintavalle
Pier Paolo Pasolini