Oft-regarded as the single most vile, most depraved, most despicable, most infamous and most controversial film of all time, Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom), also called simply Salò, is a 1975 Italian film of vague genre (straddling drama, horror, war, arthouse, Nazisploitation and emetic) written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Based on the novel The 120 Days of Sodom, one of the most infamous works by the Marquis de Sade, which many critics attest is even nastier than the film, the film transplants the book's plot from the setting of 18th Century France to the Nazi puppet-state of the Italian Social Republic (also called Salò) in northern Italy in 1944 during World War II. Four fascist libertines known as the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate and the President, knowing that the allies will soon overcome Germany thereby dissolving their power, decide to have one last hoorah by having their private army abduct eighteen attractive teenagers (9 boys and 9 girls) from the local countryside and bring them to a deserted villa. From there, the fun begins with the hapless youths being subjected to 120 days of physical, mental and sexual torture.
The film is divided into four chapters called the Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit and the Circle of Blood (with the Anteinferno being the aforementioned opening). Accompanying the four libertines are four middle-aged prostitutes conscripted from local brothels. At the start of each of the remaining three chapters, one of the prostitutes tells a story revolving around some form of sexual perversion (for example, at the start of the Circle of Shit the prostitute tells a story about coprophilia); the teenagers are then subjected to tortures based on that story. In the Circle of Manias they are subjected to anal rapes; forced to give handjobs; and a boy and girl are forced to marry but are then not allowed to consummate with the libertines coming over and raping them instead; and they are stripped, put in collars and leashes, and forced to act like dogs and eat bread embedded with nails. In the Circle of Shit, (in one of the most infamous scenes in the movie) the Duke defecates on the floor, a girl is stripped, and she is forced to crawl over and eat it with a spoon. Later, in an even more infamous scene the teens are fed their cooked previous week's excretions at a banquet. Amidst these acts those teens who break the libertines' rules have their names marked in a book, to be ultimately punished in a manner unknown to them...
In the final chapter, the Circle of Blood, the teens who had their names marked in the book are further marked with blue ribbons. The teens who have not broken the rules and have been seduced by the libertines to The Dark Side accompany them upstairs where they watch as, down below in the courtyard, the uncorrupted are brutally tortured and executed via having their nipples and genitals burned, their tongues cut out, their eyes gouged out; hanged, scalped, raped, flogged and branded. The closing shot is of two of the guards casually dancing a tango together...
To this day, debate rages amongst critics and film classification organizations as to whether the film is nothing more than exploitative, voyeuristic trash bordering on child porn or a legitimate piece of art and satire regarding fascism. Opinions vary. A melting pot of many aspects of Pier Paolo Pasolini's life; Italian Fascism, homosexuality, Roman Catholicism; unlike David Lynch he never made any secret of what the film's intention as a piece of art was; a Take That! to the entire edifice of fascism, an Orwellian warning of corruption in governments, a demonstration of both mankind's inherent evil and selfishness (one scene has a series of rulebreaking victims telling on other rulebreakers when caught to try and avoid punishment; i.e... two girls engaged in lesbianism tell on a boy sneaking off to have sex with the black maid) and inherent complacency (only on two far-removed occasions do any of the victims make any attempt to escape; for the most part they just accept their treatment). There are also specific meanings attributed to more specific scenes; the coprophilic scenes for example were said by Pasolini to be a Take That! to the fast-food industry. More than a few people regard the film as Pasolini's Take That to the entire human race.
The film was Pasolini's last. Shortly before its release he was murdered by being run down with his own car. Some say he was murdered due to the content of this film, some say it was due to political reasons, some say it was by a teenage male prostitute whom Pasolini had attempted to hit on. We may never know the truth.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom provides examples of:
- Author Appeal: Some critics have espoused that Pasolini made the film solely to get his rocks off, in a similar manner as de Sade did by writing the book. Pasolini was indeed gay, but it's not known if he had rape or faeces fetishes.
- Bowdlerization: As graphic as the film may be, it can't hold a candle to the scenes of mutilation, necrophilia, and cannibalism described in the source material.
- Celebrity Paradox: The works of Marquis de Sade are quoted throughout the film. Sade wrote the book on which Salò is based.
- Defiant to the End: Ezio is caught sleeping with the black servant, which is punishable by death according to the libertines' rules. Ezio realizes he is doomed and instead of trying to appeal to the fascists, he raises his fist high in a communist salute before getting shot.
- Depraved Bisexual: The four libertines, and the four prostitutes.
- Downer Ending: In the end, the libertines order the torture, rape and murder of most of the victims, including their own daughters. The very few good characters in the movie all die. The libertines themselves face no repercussions for their actions and will continue their sick games with their remaining captives, who have no guarantee of survival.
- Driven to Suicide: The piano player jumps out the window out of despair at the sickening events around her.
- Everyone Is Bi: The four libertines and four prostitutes are all bi, and they seem to assume that everybody else (such as the guards and the victims) is too.
- Exploitation Film: Averted. Despite its subject matter and despite it being made in the 70s, the film was not so much made to sap money out of the pockets of teenage boys at grindhouses so much as it was made for uppity Italian intellectuals to ponder at arthouses. At least, so does Pasolini insist.
- Fan Disservice: The teenage servants are seen naked but it's far from titillating since they are subjected to the most humiliating and disgusting mistreatment by the libertines.
- Faux Affably Evil: The libertines and prostitutes are ridiculously polite to each other and are oddly lighthearted about what they're doing to their victims. Still, they have very little regard for human life and openly treat the victims like they're toys to break even as they crack jokes or mockingly comfort them.
- Gorn: Also averted. There isn't much blood or gore in the film. A girl gets scalped and a guy gets his eye gouged out, but neither of these is as gory as they sound, the scenes being very brief and shot from afar.
- Lighter and Softer: Very downplayed. While the film is still pretty brutal, the atrocities are quite tame compared to De Sade's novel.
- Token Good Teammate: Three out of the four guards are as cruel to the victims as the fascists and the prostitutes are. The odd one out is Ezio, who looks visibly uncomfortable with all the horribleness going on around him. The piano player is also secretly horrified at what's happening. Neither she nor Ezio can do anything about it, sadly.
- Transvestite: The four libertines don women's clothes at one point, and one of the male victims is forced to wear a wedding dress.
- Torture Porn: May be too artistic for this categorization, but the film is still regarded as such.