Is it inappropriate to refer to Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom as funny? I've been putting off watching the film for years and had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. But while Salò more than lives up to its reputation as a deliberately offensive gross-out, I'd read little that prepared me for how thought-provoking, skillfully crafted and - at points - blackly funny the film would be. During the infamous "Circle of Shit" sequence, just when I thought I couldn't take any more, one of the pervy middle-aged fascists reponsible for the film's horrors flashes an adoring smirk, his face flecked with feces, as he plants a kiss on one of his young prisoners; all at once, my nausea turned to uncontrollable laughter at the film's sheer insanity. Salò pushes bodily horror to such an extreme that it becomes completely absurd, translating political outrage into a sustained scatological outburst (the Mr. Creosote scene in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life is its direct descendant). While Pasolini may have intended Salò as an anti-entertainment, it's a shame to see the movie get lumped in with dreck like Cannibal Holocaust and I Spit On Your Grave on "Most Disturbing" lists. Though I can only recommend Salò to cinephiles who can stomach just about everything, it's an uncompromising work of art that is well worth the challenge of sitting through it.
Transplanting the Marquis de Sade's book The 120 Days of Sodom to fascist Italy, where four men - the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate and the President - kidnap 18 young men and women, capturing them in a palace and putting them through all forms of torture and degradation. The Republic of Salò was created near the end of WWII as a puppet state, and Pasolini's film is an aggressive dramatization of the unchecked decadence that signifies the end of an empire. Pasolini, like Bertolucci and Vischonti, dramatizes Wilhelm Reich's theory that fascism is a form of sexual repression; the exuberant depictions of budding sexuality shown in the director's Trilogy of Life appear only briefly, as a forced performance that is quickly interrupted. The frequent nudity of Pasolini's young, beautiful captives has a disorienting effect - if the desire towards beauty and vitality is natural, is the desire to corrupt and destroy also natural? Pasolini's deliberately distancing techniques only serve to further obscure the answer to that question, as does the captives' suprisingly passivity in the face of annihilation, the strange affection evident in the captors' faces, and the scenes where an aging maitresse entertains the captives with winsome stories of her humiliation and abuse. Whether or not these horrors are natural, Pasolini argues, we accept them without hesitation.
Pasolini's use of theatrical alienation also adds a kinky metatextual layer to the film. A performance between the older and younger maitresse late in the film calls attention to the sadomasochistic dynamic between the actors and their director. All have willingly taken on the roles of torturers and victim, with Pasolini frequently revealing to his actors the nature of a scene just before shooting. While this is an extremely manipulative approach, I haven't read any stories about actors quitting the film. Salò carries an perverse but undeniable charge as an experiment in how far its actors were willing to go, and if they might in some cases be enjoying their respective roles; I must admit that I found myself frequently observing whether the actors were visibly aroused as they assumed dominant or submissive roles. Like de Sade, Pasolini is exploring the darkest areas of sexuality, but while the Marquis was having a wank, Pasolini examines the lizard brain with a critical eye. The dark side of his Arabian Nights and the entire flood of '70s Europorn, Salò introduces a cinema born out of the sexual revolution and the liberation of content that is not an endless Bacchanalic orgy but also the release, Pandora-like, of the basest qualities of human nature.
About the shit-eating: 30+ years after after Salò and Pink Flamingos, after Jackass and the birth of "extreme" as a selling point, when corprophagia can be found in a studio-released comedy like American Wedding, once-transgressive content exists as nothing more than a dare between giggling teens (or, frighteningly, people my age) looking to prove how desensitized they've become. How is it, then, that Salò has lost none of its power? This can partly be attributed to the very convincing shit - a mixture of chocolate and orange marmalade - but what really sets Salò apart from its descendants in gross-out is that, to quote Videodrome, it has a philosophy. With the film newly available on DVD, it'd be great if it gained a reputation as a triple dog dare for the Goatse/"Two Girls One Cup" crowd, unexpectedly blindsiding its new audience with its lacerating indictment of their late-empire decadence. That is, if they can get past the weird gay stuff.