Salo (1975)
By: Mr Intolerance on November 3, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Criterion (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). Italian DD 2.0 Mono, English DD 2.0 Mono. English Subtitles. 116 minutes
The Movie
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Starring: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto P Quintaville, Aldo Valetti, Caterina Boratto, Elsa de Giorgi, Helene Surgere, Sonia Saviange
Screenplay: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Country: Italy
External Links
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The republic of Salo was a Fascist puppet-state in the north of Italy during World War 2, under the protection of Hitler after the Allies invaded in late 1943, not lasting much into 1944. It was a place that was responsible for some of the most atrocious excesses of Mussolini's Fascist regime – fiddling while Rome burns, as it were – and it's the setting for one of cinemas most shocking, notorious and thought-provoking masterpieces.

The end of the 18th century in France and one of the least-read but oft-discussed authors of the modern era, a diminutive French cavalry officer with an over-active sex drive and a desire to cause pain in others, Donatien Alphonse Francoise, the Marquis de Sade, is languishing in the Bastille, that indomitable prison fortress of Paris. He's probably regretting poisoning (although not lethally) those prostitutes he dosed with his own blend of Spanish Fly, before flaying open one of their backs and pouring hot wax into her wounds – it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. His family, embarrassed by his antics, this being the latest in a long line of sexual felonies, have had him locked up. In the hours of dusk each night he writes in secret what he considers his masterwork The 120 Days of Sodom, a cavalcade of atrocities indivisibly linking sex with torture, pain and death – his intention was to write the most impure, unclean, obscene and offensive book ever – he pretty much succeeded. The word "sadism" is derived from his last name, after all. The book is never finished, and by halfway through de Sade's manuscript the whole thing simply descends into an enumerated list of horrors, each more repellent than that which preceded it, culminating in "The Infernal Passion", which truly has to be read to be believed. The Bastille is stormed by the French revolutionaries (which de Sade may well have had a hand in inspiring, depending on who you believe), de Sade loses the manuscript (more likely it is stolen), states that he "wept tears of blood" on its loss, and yet it still exists, despite its jaw-droppingly horrific nature, and only in the last fifty years has it been readily available to the public. Before that, the black market must have been flourishing. And de Sade, after being free for a brief amount of time, was eventually, under Napoleon, imprisoned in the Charenton asylum (for the second time!), writing plays for the inmates to perform (the mind boggles at the idea) as a form of therapy, and attempting to re-write Sodom as The Days at Florbelle, his multi-volume magnum opus, the manuscript burnt to ashes by his own son after de Sade's death. C'est la vie.

Flash forward to 1975 and maverick Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini is filming what is tragically to be his final movie, before being beaten to death by a male prostitute (the perpetrator recanted this in 2005, intimating that Paolini's death was more politically motivated – wild theories abound), based on this heinous novel of de Sade's, although set in the republic of Salo in 1944. While the decadent nature of 18th century France might not be readily apparent in late 20th century Italy, Pasolini can see it, and so launches into one of the most coruscating, abrasive and invective attacks on complacency and consumerism the world has ever seen. Even if you haven't seen Salo, you've heard of it, if you're serious about film, and you know about its legacy of notoriety – probably even where it's been banned and how long for – and you therefore probably have an idea about its importance, too. Despite its depictions of coprophilia, coprophagia, incest, paedophilia, sodomy, rape, murder and a general bon vivant attitude to the worst and darkest aspects of the human condition, I would stand up and defend Salo in any court of law as a valid artistic statement, a condemnation of how morally abhorrent our modern life has become. The terrors we see inflicted upon the victims in this film are the indignities hurled at us every day writ large and emphasised so that those of a meaner intellect might still get it.

Salo, 1944: Four fascists (the Duke, the Bishop, the President and the Magistrate – representing all aspects of worldly power) decamp with their daughters (each of them is married to another's daughter), a gaggle of prostitutes, some soldiers and a bunch of young boys and girls (the actors are thought to have been between 14 and 18) to a secluded villa for an indeterminate period of time. Once there, the rule of the fascists is absolute, any misdemeanour punishable by torture or death. The madams will tell tales of debauchery to serve as appetisers for the jaded fascists, who will then enact similar violence and perversion to what they hear on their extremely unwilling victims, with no hint of consequence. That's the plot summed up right there, pretty much. We act as voyeurs to the whole beautifully shot atrocity.

So then, some sense of the story. The opening credits (contextually appropriate music, no images) give you a wider reading list of reference materials – if that isn't backing up claims that this is a serious film, I don't know what the fuck is! You don't reference Roland Barthes or Simone de Beauvoir unless you've got some grey matter ticking away up there. People spurn this film based on reputation – if they actually watched it and saw what it had to say, maybe things would be different. There is an intellect at work here, people.

The four fascists (de Sade refers to them in the parent text as "the four friends" or "our heroes" – he was a bad man after all) are seen in a small claustrophobic room ratifying their rules for the time at the villa ("all's good, if it's excessive"), before the totally arbitrary round-up of youths begins. This in and of itself shows what Pasolini himself referred to as the "anarchy of power". The human body itself is seen as the ultimate saleable commodity.

The sad nature of humans conforming to what those in power want us to accede to is dealt with early in the piece – a bunch of fascist soldiers rounding up young women excuse themselves with, "Sorry, we were ordered to do this" – Nuremberg logic if I ever heard it. Pasolini states at some point on the extras that there is no Roman alive today, our glorious past has been overwhelmed by a pretty sad, apathetic, myopic and self-serving present. Instead of addressing these obvious injustices, we allow them to happen, eventually becoming complicit in them.

Even at the outset of the film, the villains are shown to be cold and implacable – I've read things that refer to them as being pantomime villains (as indeed they're referred to on the extras here), but I don't see that. To me a pantomime villain is Darth Vader. Instead, these rather sad-looking middle aged men in suits are the villains of our age. Corporate types who have practically the power of life and death over us all. The banality of evil in the real world, is what they basically represent.

Once we get to the villa, all bets are off – everyone is going to come to a sticky end, and we all know it. The Fascists read the assembled crew the bad news, and then we get down to it, as it were. The codes by which the Fascists want to run the whole shebang are unnatural, and run contrary to our own moral codes, which of course is why we're meant to despise them, and why we're meant to see Pasolini's point, which is to see the common man's obsequiesence to power. And we're meant to despise it.

The movie moves in a Dante-esque structure, a la The Divine Comedy, in this instance looking pretty solidly at The Inferno – a straight up and down form, going from bad to worse. We go from the beginning, the "Antechamber of Hell" into the "Circle of Manias" ("Circle of Obsessions" in this version) into the "Circle of Shit" (where things get worse still), and thence into the hell-on-earth of the final moments, the "Circle of Blood".

"Nothing's more contagious than evil."

This is certainly a theme that Pasolini riffs on. Even in having one of the oppressed becoming one of the oppressors, in a rather obvious move, Pasolini is showing us in no uncertain terms that if we become tainted with power (evil), then we become as horrid as that which we fear and despise. There are plenty of examples on display here. One of the young boys becomes favoured by the Fascists, as soon as that happens, he becomes evil. Given an out, humanity's first and foremost concern is the self – we'll take that out and save our miserable skins; there's not much fun in being a martyr.

People call this a pornographic film – I always thought that porno was meant to be an erotic thing – this is about as far from erotic as you can get. The sex is objectified by the camera; we see it in the distance – actually that's a point worth mentioning, distancing shots are used frequently to take the audience away from the action. In a similar way, as in Men Behind The Sun, we aren't given anyone to identify with, meaning that we don't have a character to "follow" throughout the film – this is problematic for the audience, and it provides further distance for them. Basically, this re-emphasises the glacial evil of the film. There are no pop-shots on peoples' faces or tits, the common porno pay-off, the camera is showing us only the nastiness, and it does so unflinchingly – check out the scene when the Duke shits on the floor and forces a fork into the hands of one young woman in order to make her eat it. The girl is crying in reaction to being callously reminded of her mother's death, drowned by the Fascists while trying to save her daughter, and then crying in response to the situation she's now in. Naked in front of about 40 people, being made to eat a turd off the floor like an animal, knowing that regardless of what she does, she'll be brutally punished anyway. The camera simply stares at her utterly without compassion or feeling. Sex is used in this film as punishment, a form of degradation – it is never intimate; someone is always watching, at some point or other, there are always others present.

"This whining's the most exciting thing I've ever heard!"

The suffering of the victims is unabated. Making people eat shit is about as bad as it gets, and even if we, as the audience, know it's fake shit made out of chocolate and fruit pieces, it's still horrible. And I must say that when the tureen full of turds opens up, it's still one of the worst things I've ever seen. And when I saw this in a cinema in the early 90s, in one of this film's rare un-banned status' in Australia – it caused a walk-out of extraordinary proportions. This, apparently was Pasolini's rather obvious social comment on junk food – he certainly couldn't have made it any more obvious.

While there is humour present in the film, it generally falls very flat – deliberately, I think. Even the funereal clothes of the "brides" in the wedding scene is only funny in a gallows humour kind of way, and even then because it just appears so strangely out of place. These vicious cruel men dressed like your nanna – with 1940s haute couture, hats and veils – it doesn't even come across as camp (although many people will try and tell you otherwise), so put Pasolini's homosexuality to the back of your mind, just incongruous. It's disturbing, like so many things in this film, for its inappropriateness. Think about the chorus-line marching of the Fascists in the final scenes – we laugh, and then we remember what's happening. We stop laughing.

The film itself was shot in two different houses outside of Mantua, the final moments (and certainly the most disturbing ones) at the Cinecitta studios in Rome, where the local inhabitants would not be disturbed by the fucked-up repugnant shit Pasolini was about to direct. The actors, apart from the 4 or 5 professionals, were picked from the street. The script was given to these actors on the day, so that they had no idea what it was that they'd be doing, in order to increase their dramatic range, and to give more of a reaction, basically. The set had to have police protection, parts of the movie were stolen, Pasolini received death threats – and as far as the film was concerned after Pasolini's death, this was such a political hot potato that no one wanted to touch it. 30 years on, in this country, no one wants to touch it still.

An idiomatically correct representation of one of the key works of "the Divine Marquis" (as the Surrealists called him)? No – that would be practically impossible. Salo instead is a recontextualisation given events that happened in the director's youth, and which he thought were still relevant in the day, as well as that hoary old chestnut, the dehumanising effects of modern life. It's bleak, life-denying and a 100% volta face from his previous three films (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights, collectively referred to as "The Trilogy of Life") and the bawdy zest that characterises them. Dispirited and dejected by what the modern human had been degraded into becoming, Pasolini shows us what he sees us to be – a degenerate form of what once was a positive and vital being. That picture is one many people could probably do without. This is not a film for everyone.

Original 1.85:1 aspect ratio? Check. Clear subtitling that never gets lost in the picture? Check. Crystalline picture which actually reveals more about Pasolini's cinematography than before? Check. Restored, high definition anamorphic digital transfer? Check. Greenish tinged, cheesecloth softened, artefact-filled disappointment in DVD form? No way pal – that may have been Criterion's modus operandi last time, but not here. This is how restoration ought to look.


Not exactly earth-shattering, but obviously adequate for the purpose at hand, and a fuck's sight better than the previous (now out of print) Criterion release. Like the video, clear and sharp. Someone spent a lot of time and effort on this. And I didn't listen to the English dub, by the way – if you're interested in that, listen to it yourself.

Extra Features
Criterion are the masters of the DVD release. If you can get a more complete (and relevant) package of extras, I'd like to see it. The packaging is beautiful: a well designed slipcase with a thick 3-panel fold out digipak inside, containing the 2 discs and a booklet of essays. On the first disc there's the trailer only, but that's okay, considering the absolute fucking cornucopia on disc two. I'm actually glad that there's no commentary track, as I think it would distance you too much from what Pasolini wanted you to experience.

The video extras: Salo: Yesterday and Today – this 33 minute French doco features some interview footage on the set of Salo with Pasolini, as well as with a couple of his campadres, including actor-director Jean-Claude Biette. This will be of some interest to Salo fans as it features on set behind the scenes footage of the climactic, if not actually apocalyptic, final scene in May 1975 at the famous Cinecitta studios, albeit in rather grainy black and white – it has full sound, by the way. The interviews with Pasolini show him to be an intelligent, articulate man who was making a statement with Salo on the times in which he lived, as much as about under the rule of the fascists. This is not some cheap pornographer or exploitation huckster, this guy is, or rather unfortunately was, an artist. When stating his intended purpose about making a film that critiques the abuse of power, from his own quite pronounced non-conformist Marxist agenda, he states quite candidly that he knows that the film will no doubt be misunderstood: "I don't know if it will be clear, if the ordinary viewer will notice. Even a film critic might not notice." Prescient words indeed, retaining their validity some thirty years later.

Fade to Black – this English doco linked or almost anchored by well-respected media critic Mark Kermode features interviews about Pasolini, and Salo particularly, with directors Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris), Catherine Breillat (Romance, Anatomy of Hell) and John Maybury (Love Is The Devil), themselves no strangers to cinema controversy, with an academic point of view offered by David Forgacs, a professor in Italian at University College London. Kermode turns up for a few well-chosen words as well. This is interesting stuff, and I would have liked to have seen and heard more of it. If, like me, you watch the extras first because you're quite familiar with the film, the images from the film in this documentary are not taken from the current release, and they stand as a reasonable contrast point, if you're interested, in looking at how good the current release is. Also, the grainy black and white footage of the first doco is presented in grainy colour here. Odd.

Next up is the 40 minute doco The End of Salo, a more general featurette about the production of the film, featuring interviews with actors Antinisea Nemour and Paolo Bonacelli (the rather fearsome Duke – the Blangis character for fans of the novel the film was based on), uncredited screenwriter Pupi Avati (a name familiar to fans of Italian cinema), production designer Dante Ferretti and other cast and crew. This is a real nuts and bolts "making of" featurette, giving you the straight skinny on the background of the film, and some of the other players involved in the creation of it, or who were in front of the camera, or even those simply commenting on it from an expert perspective. Personally, as a friend of mine said to me the other day, I would have been interested in hearing what some of the non-actors (Pasolini often just picked people off the streets to give his films a sense of verite) who played the teenagers would have said about the film now. Still, there's some interesting stories to hear, and it's an essential for Salo fans (if you'd like to be identified as such!). More importantly, there are some images that shown that are not part of the final cut of the film (and which come from the final scene) which have disappeared (as moving images) forever. There's also a reading of the final lines from the script which are not in the film, and it's unknown as to whether or not they were ever shot. You want the most complete version of this film? Buy this now!

An interview with Dante Ferretti, the production designer: 12 minutes long, this collaborator with Pasolini recounts his experiences of working with the Maestro, centring on the work for Salo, obviously. Again, there is some goodness here – after all the look of the film and the set are pretty damned important, given Pasolini's love of distancing his audience from the action. Pasolini's desire to make a film based on an artist's mentality and approach is also broached, as is the approach to the décor chosen, including the selection of Fascist-condemned art in a Fascist milieu.

Finally, in terms of video extras, we get the interview with film-scholar (I always cringe when I read that term) Jean-Pierre Gorin. This 26 minute long interview is a Criterion exclusive. It's a scholarly exposition on what the film is about, and is very interesting. Definitely one for the fans of Salo, or of de Sade, as it will make you think about the relationship between the two, and the contextual references that we can compare between de Sade's 18th century zeitgeist, the Fascist 30s/40s context, Pasolini's 70's context, and, sadly enough, our contemporary values and attitudes. Salo is indeed a cautionary text for all times.

And the 80 page booklet? A series of essays by a bunch of people who should know about the ideas raised: Neil Bartlett, Catherine Breillat, Naomi Greene, Sam Rohdie, Roberti Chiese, Gary Indiana (these are all goodness, really interesting, if not essential stuff – still, read them and become a better person – they are again quite scholarly things and contain a vast amount of information about the film and its reception in various contexts as well as the ideas it raises). Also, there's an excerpt of a diary from the perspective of Gideon Bachmann's diary on-set (the stuff about the last days of shooting is definitely worth your while), it's down beat, but interesting, stuff.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Nothing short of brilliant, this version of Salo is the one that people should watch of this oft-maligned film. An exercise in grim, iced evil laced with uneasy gallows humour, Salo is Pasolini's masterpiece – he quite consciously changed the way he cast, filmed and edited the movie, and also considering he wrote it for someone else, Sergio Citti, managed to make it an extremely personal lacerating assault on the things he detested in modern life. Extreme? Sure, but when you're trying to make an impression, the extreme is always the approach to use to make sure the rank and file get it. Maybe that's casting pearls before swine in this case, but whatever your impression of this film, Salo is a film that is once seen, never forgotten. Pasolini's death after the film's completion is the tragic coda to what is possibly one of the most important movies ever made, and to my mind emphasises its cultural significance. He didn't intend to die, obviously, but his tragic demise means that we should pay close attention to what this social critic, this truth-teller, this disenchanted poet was trying to tell us. He can't do so past the closing credits of this film. A bleak, black masterpiece.

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