Where does one begin the dubious task of reviewing Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom? I guess a reasonable place to begin is with a brief synopsis for those who do not know the film.
Salò in its most basic definition is about a group of fascists occupying an area of Northern Italy just before the second World War. What these fascists like to do to pass the time is to abduct teenagers from the area, bring them to their lavish estate, and subject them to their perversions, which are without a doubt the most disgusting and debauched perversions known to human kind. Many of their perversions have something or other to do with defecation; any further detail I will leave to your imagination.
The easy path in thinking about a film so abhorrent is simply not to. And this is the path chosen by many who are forced to experience this film. Once fine appears on the screen, if they got that far, they immediately reach for a handle of their favorite alcohol, down it, and try to pick up the shards of their broken life as best they can. But I, never one to do anything half-assed, am fully willing to dive head first into Pier Paolo Pasolini's controversial picture.
The fascists try in every way they can to dehumanize their subjects. They disallow them any religious observance, intercourse with each other, any dignity equal even to that of a dog. Does Pasolini do this to show the horrors of fascism? The abuses of the bourgeoisie? The capability for perversion and despicable behaviors that exist within us all? I don't think so.
I see all these things listed as red herrings that serve only to further enough of a story line to keep the viewer going. I think this film exists solely to see just how far the envelope can be pushed, to see what the definition of gratuitous truly is.
I come to this conclusion based on a few things. The fascists show no icons to confirm that they're indeed fascists: no swastikas, so hammer and sickles, no paintings of Mussolini, Hitler or any other dictator. They show little rhetoric indicative of fascism. The audience isn't told to which nation or party the group belongs. The male fascists are only given arbitrary political titles, such as "Duke," "Magistrate" and "President." All this suggests to me the fact that these villains are fascists is immaterial.
The photography is so matter-of-fact. Long shots dominate the film, meant to showcase the large "orgy room" and all the depravity happening within it. The camera is used solely to record what's happening. There are no extravagant camera movements, no interesting edits; there's only one memorably harsh angle, at the beginning of the film that emphasizes that the teens are subservient to their captors. For the vast majority of the film, the camera is placed in the center of the room to film the action.
The audience is given so little time to get to know the victims. We're told most of their names, but there are far too many of them to keep straight, or to be able to really get to know any of them. Any back-story given, like the girl whose mother died trying to save her, is quickly forgotten when she is swiftly punished for her outburst, and after that scene becomes again another face in the crowd. The victims are dehumanized so much that we can't even sympathize with their plight, their being abused by fascism.
All these things considered, along with the pure simplicity and extremity of the tortures, I can't really buy into the fact that they're supposed to put forth any kind of statement about fascism, the bourgeoisie or human nature. I think Pasolini just wanted to see how disturbed and outraged an audience could get. The question that then comes up, is whether that's remarkable.
The simple definition of gratuitous is "unnecessary or unjustified." If every disgusting scene does indeed disgust, then those scenes accomplish their goal. They serve their purpose. The film may ultimately be a long series of revolting acts, but if the audience is still revolted by the end of the film, by the umpteenth nasty thing, which they are, then the film is still drawing the intended reaction from the audience. Pasolini gives us just enough intrigue to drag us along, to make us want to see what atrocity is on deck for these poor souls, and does not disappoint in delivering the atrocities, and I'd venture to say there is something remarkable in that.
Yes, it's true that any person could theoretically make this movie. But who has the balls to push it this far? It turns out only Pasolini and very few others (Noe and Deodato, to name two). And so for that I give a cheer to Pasolini, to anyone who can sit through his film, and to any filmmaker daring enough to try and top it.