“Within a budding grove, the girls think but of love. Hear the radio, drinking tea and to hell with being free. They’ve no idea the bourgeoisie has never hesitated to kill its children.”
I thought it would be a while before I watched Salò. It’s generally considered the most disgusting movie on Criterion and also on the 1001 List, and ironically recommending Salò is one of the hottest “arthouse cinema” memes right now. I remember being afraid of it for a long time. Roger Ebert famously owned the film on Laserdisc but never watched it due to its reputation. Yet, curiosity got the better of me, so here we are.
I’ve read that while the movie is transgressive and horrifying, it’s one of the most beautiful films you’ll ever see (unironically). I’ve never seen a Pasolini film, and some people say that Salò really isn’t as shocking as its reputation makes it out to be. Strangely enough, at the Barnes & Noble Criterion shelf during last month’s sale, it was the first movie that caught my eye. I felt the case in my hands and decided I needed to see it.
The setting is 1944 Fascist-occupied Italy: a beautiful landscape nestling a strange but ornate castle. Inside is a disgusting shitshow as a series of socialites and men of power kidnap and rape a group of young men and women. The film is broken into different “circles” reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, and their sexual torture only grows worse as each level deepens. It’s a dismal “story” without the faintest hint of hope, and it will likely exhaust and sadden you until you can’t take any more. Then it gets worse.
The shock value is a prominent aspect of the film, but I think the most harrowing thing is that you hardly get the perspective of the victims at all. There are one or two shots of rebellion where children whisper about how they’re scared, or they defy the rules set in place for them, but these rebels are immediately shut down and punished harshly. Most of the time, we merely see them as cattle: a bulk of naked bodies being paraded and used for the enjoyment of the elite. It is in through these villains, rather than the victims, that we get the perspective of the film. We watch as they choose which children to take, how to control and abuse them, and ultimately how to pick them off. The closest thing to backstory or character development is only for the villains (and the eerie “storyteller” woman that serves as inspiration for the horrors of the castle). Through this limited, dark perspective, Pasolini builds a world where you never start to believe the children will be freed. And spoiler alert, they aren’t.
The movie is beautiful in a twisted cinephile sort of way. Pasolini knows how to wield a camera, and shots are so imaginative that they seem to be the only solace from the horrors of the plot. He relies on Wes Anderson levels of symmetry while also finding fascinating shapes and colors in his offbeat torture-porn setting. In his commentary on the horrors of fascism, we also get a cinematic experiment in beautiful composition of ugly, sadistic subjects, and that certainly makes the movie worth adding to the 1001 List in my opinion.
Is Salò as hard to watch as everyone claims? Yes and no. I think it could easily be the most disgusting movie of its type, but there are lots of types of movies. Raw has the advantage of another forty years of cinematic technique and refined technology to aid its unclean, modern realism. Pink Flamingos is an even dirtier form of realism where the glorification of trash gives the movie its power. I think both of those are harder to watch than Salò for their own reasons, but Salò probably still takes the cake in terms of the last one I’d want to watch again. It’s not just shocking, but dismal and desensitizing. I don’t plan to watch it again soon, but there’s something cinematically comforting (and humanely disgusting) in knowing that I could.
Films Left to Watch: 829