I remember seeing a preview for Paolo Pasolini’s controversial film, “Salo, o 120 dias de Sodoma” where one of the reviews said, “The best advice I can give for seeing Salo: Don’t see it.” I would say that’s pretty accurate.
If you don’t feel absolutely violated, disgusted, dirty, and depressed after watching it, then odds are you just don’t have a soul. Salo takes just about every taboo and psychological disturbance possible and brings it out in the full open, making for the most horrific movie experience you will ever sit through.
In short, “Salo” is the story of nine boys and girls kidnapped by a group of Facists in an Italian town and forced to be their personal wind-up sex toys. The teenagers can’t escape; their families believe they are dead, there are guards at every door, and the government is the one controlling the sexual games. Unlike a John Waters film though, Pasolini’s film doesn’t wink at the subject of sex. The nudity is not meant for titilation, it’s meant to disgust. And there is almost an overload of it. Sex is a constant theme of “Salo” and most of the time you feel the most horrid sense of dread watching it. In one of the most disturbing scenes the teens have to act like dogs and are seen running up some stairs on all fours, some on leashes. Once inside a large main room where most of the torture happens, the teens are forced to eat crap and even beg for it, barking like dogs.
This scene specifically reminded me of a documentary I had seen on Sundance on the subject of mind-control. The documentary focused on two main events in history–one was a social experiment conducted by a Yale professor that turned a basement of the university into a prison. Fourteen students responded to an ad for the experiment and were then randomly chosen to be the prison guards and the prisoners. At first, everyone was joking around and not taking it seriously but by the end of the first week, they weren’t playing anymore. The students acting as guards really believed they were guards and actually started mentally torturing the students who were prisoners by making them do sex-acts and putting them in isolation for no reason other than because they had power and could do it. The other issue it discussed was the controversy in Iraq when it was discovered that American soldiers were forcing Iraq prisoners to perform sexual acts on camera as a means for torture. When taken in this context, Salo is even more horrifying than you ever imagined. This isn’t just the work of fiction. This has been going on right this decade, and we’ve been paying for it with our tax money.
As the movie progresses, the torture gets more sadistic. A girl is added to a death-list for mentioning the name of God; another boy is added to the same list for wiping after going to the bathroom. Every day the kids are shuffled into a room where a woman tells stories of her sexual conquests that are meant to sexually arouse the kids so the guards and politicians can take them off to have sex with them. Gender is not an issue as all of the guards are presumably bisexual; they wil screw anyone. In another scene a contest is devised for whoever has the best butt. The kids are taken into a room and told to get on the floor with bags over the heads where the politicians will come in and judge who wins. The winner’s prize is death.
Of course all of this is just build-up to the main event. The book of death that had been used for the past few weeks is finally put to use when the kids are led outside and tortured and murdered in the most brutal ways possible. A girls nipple is burned; a boy’s tongue is cut off; another kid has his eye guaged out. It’s telling that this is the only violent scene in the entire movie, and yet after everything that’s happened, you feel like you just watched the most gruesome movie ever made.
I feel like Salo is an important film for it’s message, and one that most everyone should see if you can handle it, but you probably won’t want to watch it more than once. The acting is superb and the script is excellent. There’s a real clausterphobia and helplessness watching it, knowing that nothing can be done to save these kids. But once the film is over and you realize as I mentioned above, that things like this are still going on today, the real horror sets in.