When lists are complied of the most controversial films of all-time, a few titles are consistent- Caligula, Cannibal Holocaust, The Birth of a Nation, A Serbian Film, Nekromantik and Salo. Perhaps, it’s out of sheer curiosity, I always feel enraptured to see these as a dare to myself. To see how far the bar of tastelessness I can endure. I had never seen Salo before but its ribald reputation has preceded it with story credit from the Marqui de Sade.
Truth be told, the film is an odious, non-flippant version of the notorious Aristocrats joke where the extreme escalation of the dehumanizing behavior is a punchline next to the white-collar elitists who are achieving hedonistic gratification from it. A sampling of nine boys and nine girls are kidnapped by four libertines after Mussolini’s eradication in 1943. Throughout their abduction, they are mistreated to various degrees with leashes around their necks as they are completely nude, hobble around like canines and bark for rations.
The film is structured after Dante’s Divine Comedy: the Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit and the Circle of Blood. The axiom “all things are good when taken to excess” is quite apropos for the bacchanalia afterwards. Naturally, some of the Hall of Orgies incidents reverberate heavily while others are oddly inert. By being literal-minded (the participants’ feces consumption is based on their volition to swallow whatever the upper crust is offering them) and pious, the messages are the film’s only content sans character arcs (outside of the pianist) or a plot-driven goal. It’s a WWII-era Stanford experiment with only prisoners and their bailiffs.
The most evocative speech is the Duke’s monologue about slaying his mother and how her only joy should’ve been giving “pleasure to a man.” During the third segment, the captives are coerced into feasting on plates of excrement. Surprisingly, the scene isn’t Sturm und Drung with some scintillas of ill-advised gallows humor (one libertine instructs a boy to stick his fingers in his mouth as a set-up to a repulsive joke). Pasolini frames most scenes with a formalist, painterly eye.
There is no retribution to the nihilism here (as the Duke states “they are beyond the reach of any ‘legality'”). The perpetrators aren’t punished for his misdeeds. In fact, they waltz. And the victims without the blue ribbons are dismembered via eye gouging, branding, hanging and other heinous methods. Beyond the episodic torment that is from the objective point-of-view of the four dignitaries, Salo is alternately contemptible, alienating, jugular-slashing and raw but Ennio Morricone’s tinkling score abates some of the shock value.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5