Dir: Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975
It’s hard to categorise Pasolini’s last film. I’ve heard it described as “beautiful” (I really don’t see how!), right down to “vile”. It really is a Marmite film.
Based on the Marquis de Sade’s novel “The 120 Days Of Sodom”, Pasolini updates the story to Mussolini’s last days of fascist rule. Four wealthy libertines kidnap 18 teenagers and subject them to 120 days of torture and degrading sexual acts.
The libertines instill a strict regime of rules that hostages must adhere to. Failure to do so will result in immediate death.
The message behind the film is that absolute power corrupts absolutely but, really, it’s just an excuse to get a load of tits and cock on screen.
This is a gay film. That is not meant in a derogatory manner or tone but throughout the whole film Pasolini promotes homosexuality over heterosexuality and lesbianism.
For the coup de gras several of the teenagers are sexually tortured to death including a boy having his penis burnt with a lit candle. It’s at this point where Pasolini’s fantasies go into overdrive. He takes great pleasure in extreme closeups of their members. The boys’ prosthetic penises are deliberately made huge with thick girth.
It’s important to remember that the director himself was openly gay and often used the medium of film to explore sexuality.
A fundamental rule enforced by the captors is that hostages are not to engage in sexual conduct with each other. Some of them do and are rewarded with a bullet. This brings me to the cusp of why I believe that this is a gay film.
A boy and a girl are found in bed together post coitus. The libertines do not hesitate in murdering the boy.
Two girls explore their sexuality and are punished for it.
One of the libertines, a duke, takes one of the male captives as his submissive and they are seen together at the end smiling at each other.
So, there, we have three sexual scenarios. One straight, one lesbian and one gay. The straight and lesbian relationships are punished. The characters involved in the homosexual relationship, submissive or otherwise, do not come to any harm are shown to be happy.
Pasolini is clearly favouring homosexuality over any other sort which is no surprise as, like I said earlier, he was gay.
There is nothing wrong with being gay. There is nothing wrong with gay cinema. Everybody is equal. The homosexual undercurrent running through the film is what stands out. It’s prevalent. More so than any political message that the film purports to convey. The feeling of misogyny rears it’s ugly head once or twice. Females tend to come off worse than any males. There seems to be more humiliation towards girls than boys. It’s a girl that is forced to eat shit. It’s a girl that is forced to eat food laced with nails. It’s a girl that is made to urinate on the face of a libertine.
Despite the films checkered history of censorship it still pales in comparison to de Sade’s novel. The original is a truly depraved smorgasborg of sexual deviancy. Pasolini waters down the perversity of the original but is still able to inject just enough material to make you squirm and your stomach churn.
Often labelled as one of the most controversial films ever made, it has been banned in many countries or heavily censored. The UK has a very interesting relationship with the film.
Submitted for a certificate in 1975 the director of the board, James Ferman, thought very highly of the film and felt that the film shouldn’t be cut as it would ruin the meaning and message. However, as it was, the board couldn’t pass a film so explicit and cuts were not a viable option. Ferman recommended that the distributor show it in private cinema clubs where membership was required. There it could be shown in it’s entirety.
Cinema clubs were divorced from the rules and regulations of the BBFC. A certificate wasn’t needed to show films at the clubs the only caveat being that they didn’t break the law on obscenity. Following the advice “Salo” was shown uncut at numerous clubs in London.
Unfortunately, the authorities got wind of the screenings and the Director Of Public Prosecutions decided that it WAS obscene and ordered the police to raid the premises of anywhere showing it. Exhibitors were then under threat of possible imprisonment and, or at least, a hefty fine.
Hearing about the predicament that cinema owners now found themselves in James Ferman appealed to the DPP not to pursue the charge as it was his recommendation to show it in the clubs. As a bargaining tool Ferman agreed to edit the most problematic scenes and to apply an opening prologue explaining the film and as to why you were watching a censored version. This appeased the DPP and the charges were dropped. “Salo” was able to resume exhibition, albeit in a truncated form.
Australia banned the film outright and continued to do so until the early 2000’s when it was briefly made available on video before being banned again. Many rejections later the Australian censors finally relented and passed the film uncut.
Numerous attempts over the years by different distributors to get a rating in the UK proved fruitless. It was just too explicit. Too perverse. But it was never going to go away.
In 2000 the British Film Institute tried their luck. James Ferman had retired a couple of years before and there had been a massive overhaul of the BBFC’s guidelines, plus public attitudes had changed. With that in mind “Salo” was duly passed uncut but only after the board insisted that the release was kept very low key owing to the nature and infamy.
The reason for the films low score is that it just isn’t very good. Maybe the political message is lost on me. But, truthfully, I was bored. The scenes of horror didn’t grab me. The story didn’t grab me. I can’t say I hated it but then I can’t say I loved it or even enjoyed it. I was just…meh!
This is one of those films where the notoriety is more interesting than the product. Sadly, we never got to find out Pasolini’s thoughts about the furore as he was brutally murdered before the film was released.
A documentary on the film and it’s troubles would be so much more enjoyable.