Normally the words ‘scenes of torture and degradation, sexual violence and nudity,’ would be incentive enough to see a film. But combine this with the knowledge that it’s been banned twice, firstly from 1975 – 1994, then following a five year period of freedom during which outraged conservative forces marshaled their troops, it was banned again in 1998, and that decision has only been reversed now. There’s something about the forbidden, about the maliciously provocative and unrepentantly transgressive. It’s why we all queued up to see the seedy artless Base Moi before it was banned again a few months later, or Larry Clark’s morally questionable Ken Park and why there were illicit screenings last month of the most recent corrupting influence on our morals Bruce La Bruce’s gay zombie porn LA Zombie in which the censors objected to an over indulgence in explicit wound sex with corpses. ‘He came to fuck the dead back to life,’ crows the subtle tag-line.
But there’s a certain knowing, a precociously cinematic feeling of boundary pushing to these examples. They’re about the lure of the shock to their bourgeoisie cinematic audience, however their value beyond the illicit is questionable. Whilst Fragmented Fish is as much a fan of fake explicit underage sex, auto erotic asphyxiation, and necrophillia as the next guy, all of these examples feel too safe.
Salo (Distinction Series) doesn’t feel like this. It’s a different film. It’s dangerous and difficult. It drains all the fun out of the forbidden and punishes you for your voyeuristic intentions. It’s grueling and intolerable, impossible to enjoy. All you can do is hope to survive and try to tap into some of it’s loftier ideals. On the surface it’s disgusting, four rich libertines kidnap a bunch of young men and women in Salo 1943, a short-lived Italian republic established by Mussolini under Hitler’s protection. As the allied bombers roar overhead and the end of their power draws increasingly near, they hole up in a villa and force their victims to act out their carnal desires.
The source material is a novel by legendary pervert the Marquis de Sade, a man who himself was imprisoned due to his appalling sex crimes. 120 Days of Sodom is graphic, pornographic, violent and cruel, a series of sexual fantasies he wrote while incarcerated in the Bastille in 1785. It should be unfilmable, detailing all manner of sexual fetishes and perversions, as well as violence, rape and degradation, yet no less than Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s surrealist L’Age D’or (1930) drew influence from De Sade. By the time he tackled the novel, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini had a track record for upsetting folks with his films, having been taken to court upwards of 33 times for everything from heresy to pornography from films as diverse as Mamma Roma to Arabian Tales.
But Salo was different. Transplanting the novel to World War 2 Italy, it was Pasolini’s middle finger to society, and to some extent to himself and his earlier films. There’s no neo realist hope in Salo, no stylised artifice. It’s cold, it’s hard and it’s gruesome. Salo sees the human body as a commodity, an instrument of degradation and consumerism. When during the wedding scene they are served up human feces, it’s difficult not to read this as an statement on consumerist culture. It’s also a demonstration of power’s ability to corrupt, particularly when the guards join in on the debauchery and the young victims turn informers.
There’s no doubting that this film should be seen. Whilst society chooses to sweep the difficult under the carpet, the homeless, the disadvantaged, the addicted, and anything else that doesn’t fit within its narrative, or our toothless media refuses to deal with these issues in anything more than easy archetypes, transgressive films like Salo become increasingly important. It’s vile and abhorrent, totally outside the sensibilities of society. But that’s the point. Sometimes the deplorable is necessary.
“In the Review Board’s majority opinion,” offered the recent press release from the 5 member panel, “Salo warrants this classification because the inclusion of additional material on the DVD facilitates wider consideration of the context of the film which results in the impact being no more than high.”
Critics have called the film “a pedophiles treat,” “a handbook for deviants” that “could trigger crazy minds.” This logic of course explains the recent run of people scalping their neighbours, cooking up parts of their brain and feeding it back to them as Anthony Hopkins did in Hannibal, the sequel to Silence of the Lambs, a film easily passed by the censors. So just be careful whilst dining out, by the time you read this there will have been some “crazy minds” that have seen Salo, and society (and your dinner table) is no longer safe.