• Salo: 120 Days Of Sodom

    Released by: BFI
    Released on: 10/2/2008
    Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
    Cast: Paolo Bonacelli, Laura Betti, Giorgie Cataldi
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    The Movie:

    The late, great Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film was a pretty massive change from the rather joyful arthouse film’s he had made prior. While he was always of an interesting political mindset, a quality that did often times filter through into his films, with Salo, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom, all of his cards were on the table. While this was an undeniably bold move on the director’s part, and one that resulted in an incredibly powerful film, it was also a move that many rightfully speculate cost the director his life, making it almost impossible to discuss the picture without discussing the man who made it.

    Based on the book by the Marquis de Sade, Salo is set in the titular town in 1944 during the fascist political rule of Northern Italy towards the later part of the Second World War. When the film begins, a small platoon of armed guards imprison sixteen teenage boys and girls in a compound where the four most powerful men in town and their four female companions use them as they see fit. The first of the film’s three chapters, The Circle Of Manias, sees the telling of erotic stories lead to perverse reenactments. The second, The Circle Of Shit, sees the politicians degrade their captives in the most foul means possible by making them eat their shit. The third and final chapter, The Circle Of Blood, brings it all to a close and allows the politicians to punish their subjects seemingly at whim and based on rules of their own device.

    Rarely has a film so perfectly encapsulated the most base of human depravity. Essentially a two hour document of the worst that humanity has to offer, Salo is a hard film to watch even by the standards of this admittedly jaded and perverted reviewer not so much because of what it shows but because of how it shows it. It isn’t hard in this day and age to find all manner of atrocity documented on the internet, yet Pasolini’s film still hits like a sucker punch to the family jewels simply because it’s beautifully filmed and presented with genuine artistry. This makes for a film of contradictions, one that presents the obscene with an eye for beauty. The young cast or ‘victims’ really do represent perfect young specimens of physical beauty and it’s easy to see why these depraved and power mad politicos would be drawn to them they way that they are, yet what they inflict on them is appalling in the truest sense of the word. Pasolini’s camera, however, captures it with an artisans eye – rarely has a clip of a beautiful young woman being forced to eat the shit of a dirty old bastard been filmed so well, not even by the likes of Jamie Gillis.

    As an adaptation of de Sade’s work, it’s easy to argue against the film but as a provocative work of filmmaking, a piece intent on literally rubbing the viewers face in it and forcing us to think about the consequences of a fascist regime whether we want to or not, it’s an undeniably effective work. Not content to work as simple propaganda, Salo is more akin to a man ranting on a soap box in a public space – it might go way farther than it needs to in order to make a point and it might drag on a fair bit further than it really needs to but the message gets through, even if by the time it’s over and done with you feel like you’ve been beaten over the head by it all. The film, an anarchist statement decrying the inevitable governmental abuse of power that spills out of ever election be the winner from the left, right or sadly ever dwindling moderate party, was obviously a very personal one on the part of the man who made it. Given Pasolini’s penchant for unorthodox living in the conservative sense, the movie almost comes across as blanket condemnation against all of humanity, but there’s more to it than that, more than just scene after scene of perversity and depravity. It may not offer hope and it may not play to humanity’s good qualities (and they do exist), but it does make you think while it pummels you in the nuts with its politics.


    The 1080p VC-1 encoded 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer afforded the film by the restorative efforts of the BFI is quite good. The opening credits show more grain and a bit more print damage than you might expect but once we get past that the image cleans up considerably. Skin tones look a tad pink in some scenes but aside from that the color reproduction looks nice (though keep in mind this movie has always had a very cool color palette – it’s not a particularly colorful film) and natural and the black levels are consistent and strong. There aren’t any obvious mpeg compression artifacts to note and the image is strong and stable. Detail varies from scene to scene but on average it is quite strong, particularly in close ups. Some edge enhancement does appear to have been applied sporadically throughout the film but despite its presence, it isn’t overly distracting. Compared to earlier editions, this transfer is a bit of a revelation and while this may not be reference quality material, it’s a massive upgrade from the standard definition releases that are around even if the more recent Criterion R1 2-disc special edition seems to have nicer colors.
    Audio options are provided in English and Italian 48kHz PCM Mono tracks, with the Italian track suiting the film better. Levels are well balanced and dialogue is strong and clear. There aren’t any problems with hiss to report and the subtitles are easy to read. Morricone’s score has some nice punch to it and while the score is obviously limited in its range, it sounds perfectly fine here.

    The first disc doesn’t have much in the way of extras as it holds the film in its entity but you will find the film’s original theatrical trailer and a music video for the song Ostia: The Death of Pasolini by Coil. The second disc, however, holds a veritable encyclopedia of information on the film starting with a twenty-one minute behind the scenes featurette entitled Open Your Eyes. Here we get to see some footage shot on the set of the film while it was in production. We see a rather animated Pasolini directing his cast in some of the film’s more controversial moments. This footage was shot without sound so narration from some of the cast members over top of the material provides some welcome context and memories of making this picture and of its director.

    Neil Bartlett’s twenty-one minute Walking With Pasolini director includes some interesting vintage archival footage in amongst clips of Bartlett discussing the film with Noam Chomsky, Craig Lapper and David Forgacs. This is a pretty insightful analysis of the film with some thought provoking input from all involved.

    Fade To Black is probably the most interesting extra feature of the bunch as it explores not only the cultural impact and importance of Pasolini’s output but also the bizarre circumstances surrounding his murder in 1975 where he was run over by his own car, a strange case that is still not completely put to rest.

    Equally impressive is the sixty-minute Whoever Says The Truth Must Die featurette that gives a very thorough and specific look into what made the director’s work so interesting. More than just a bunch of film critics yammering on, this documentary is insightful without feeling pretentious and it’s a pretty fascinating examination of the late director’s films.

    The 1991 short film Ostia, a twenty-six minute recreation of Pasolini’s final day, directed by Julian Cole finishes things off nicely. Animated menus are included on each disc. All of the extra features in the set are in standard definition.

    It’s also worth noting that the BFI have included a great sixty-page full color booklet inside the slipcase packaging. While there’s an odd problem in that any time the letters FL appear in sequence they’re replaced by blank space, this is otherwise a very nice supplement in and of itself as it includes some excellent essays on the film, a piece on its censorship history in the UK and more.

    The Final Word:

    The BFI have given Salo an incredibly respectful presentation on this excellent two-disc set. The transfer is quite good and the extras are fantastic. The movie holds up as a powerful work of provocative art, a film that’s difficult to appreciate but nearly impossible not to admire.