The Marquise de Sade’s notorious novel has been transposed and updated to 1944. The scene is Salo, in northern Italy, when Mussolini is briefly freed from Italian partisans by Nazi forces. In a remote chateau, four powerful and prominent men, leaders of the local fascist mechanism, host a group of kidnapped young men and women, expressing their ultimate desires as the world crumbles around them. Four aging courtesans relate stories of their carnal pasts, which are then acted out with the 'guests' of the party. By exercising their power to degrade and destroy, the fascists illustrate how the misuses of power lead to the murder of innocents.
Minus the thematic context and symbolism, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notorious 1975 adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s novel is cinematic - but putrid. It is inconceivable that any mainstream cinema-goer of the mid-1970s could have endured the horrific acts perpetrated onscreen, regardless of the freethinking shift in that decade’s social mores or any argument that represents it as a valid work of cinematic European art.
Nor do I imagine that any 2010 DVD collector, regardless of how desperately they treasure the depth and breadth of their home library, would ever make it to the end of this film. By reputation alone, owning Salò should be enough to impress your cinephile friends; watching it with them will be whole lot harder.
The film tells the story of 17 innocents who are taken into the walled grounds and inescapable rooms of a chateau in the northern Italian town of Salo. The teenagers are at the mercy of four powerful men and four ageing prostitutes, who relate their most sordid tales from many decades serving the debauched tastes of the Italian aristocracy. The men – known only by their titles The President (Aldo Valletti), The Bishop (Giorgio Cataldi), The Magistrate (Umberto P. Quintavalle) and The Duke (Paolo Bonacelli) – then recreate the most disturbed acts of torture and sexual degradation with their terrified young prisoners.
The film is set within a short period in 1944, when Mussolini ruled after being freed by Nazi forces. In this context, the film is a none-too-subtle metaphor for Fascism, the dehumanising and destructive influence of ultimate power upon the helpless masses and the very nature of lust and evil. Supporters of the film, many of whom have fought to give the film the cinema screenings it had long been denied in many countries, point to Pasolini’s utter disregard for accepted social and artistic boundaries as groundbreaking. Technical contributions by some of Italy’s most renowned industry names – composer Ennio Morricone, DOP Tonino Delli Colli, production designer Dante Ferreti – also add weight to the film’s artistic pedigree.
But it is impossible to watch the film without being overwhelmed by the horribly immersive visceral and guttural experience that Salò ultimately provides. Flame and blade torture, anal and oral rape and urine consumption are all filmed with a detached coldness; an extended sequence involving the force-feeding of faecal matter was ultimately too graphic for this reviewer, who caught glimpses whilst shielding his eyes. Regardless of the film’s effectiveness as a socio-political statement (which is certainly debatable), Salò is most powerfully a weapon against bourgeoisie complacency and established cinema boundaries from a director of supreme intellect, artistic integrity and volatile political beliefs.
This premiere Australian DVD two-disc release contains documentaries that chronicle the film’s making and release history, with specific regard to its British run – the only Western country that did not ban the film outright upon its initial release (Australia banned it for 17 years). Other bonus material includes colour footage from the set of the film, interviews with Salò afficinadoes Noam Chomsky and Neil Bartlett and, most interestingly, the short film that accompanied the release of the 1986 song 'Ostia (the Death of Pasolini)’ by English avant garde band Coil which dramatises the details of Pasolini’s murder at the hands of a 17 year-old hustler (a story later recanted).