For those of you who can measure your encounters with movies in a timeline, I am about to introduce something to you that will split that timeline in two. Why? Perhaps I take some sick pleasure in exposing you to one of the most controversial movies ever made? Perhaps I want to make you gag as you watch it as what happened when I did (or even watched the trailer)? You might say that this desire of mine is a little… sadistic?
The movie I am speaking of is entitled Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Set during the Fascists’ last stand in World War II Italy, it tells the story of four aristocrats (the Duke, the President, the Judge, and the Bishop), all of whom are libertines (people with an extremely loose concept of morals, or have none at all) who seek to achieve the ultimate sexual pleasure. To accomplish this, they arrange the abduction of nine teenage boys and nine teenage girls and take them to a palace and expose them to one hundred twenty days of physical, mental, and sexual torture. It is basically a movie that is all about rape.
Those of you who have just read the synopsis I have provided are probably revolted by it. Congratulations, that is exactly what the author of the novel this film is based upon, intended when he wrote it. Infamously he warned the readers to “prepare [their] heart[s] and mind[s] for the most impure tale ever written since the world began, for no such book may be found among either the ancients or the moderns.” This comes from The 120 Days of Sodom. I found a copy in a bookstore one day (already aware of its existence), and read through the final few pages out of curiosity. After finishing it, I set the book down and said aloud: “WHY???” This applied to what made me decide to actually read it even though I was aware of its contents, as well as a question as to what would motivate anybody to write something like this?
Now who is this man who had the audacity and complete absence of shame to ever write something as abominable as this (Wow, I sound like a puritan!)? He is referred to as “the Marquis de Sade”, a French aristocrat from the Enlightenment era. Born Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, he gained a reputation for his insatiable lusts, as well as his cruelty, and often spent his life in prisons for, not just the attributes I just mentioned but also, blasphemy. Sade famously wrote “God is the sole idea for why I cannot forgive man.”
I must remind you that in Sade’s case, prison was not as horrific as we would imagine, as his cells were quite spacious and decorated to his desires. He possesses a type of legacy that very few are able to achieve, in that a word was added to dictionaries based on his name: Sadism. Or sadomasochistic, sadistic, etc. Very few people have achieved this in life. Other words that come to mind are Christian, Jeffersonian, Platonism, Marxist… His school of thought was that he was logical to the extreme, one example urging society to disregard the poor and suffering because they held us back (a case of social darwinism). This goes on top of him praising rape, too.
This novel was blended with several other pieces of literature: Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, Dante’s Inferno (at some point I’ll do a piece on why I am opposed to people just referring to the first installation of Alighieri’s epic poem), Ezra Pound’s poem The Cantos, and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The setting was then transported to the waning days of World War II in Italy, kept the same characters and their social positions but made them fascists. This was all done by the genius Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Despite the film depicting rape for the most part, Pasolini turned it into something more. It was highly philosophical, as it dealt with politics, social darwinism, religion, sexuality, and morals among countless other topics.
Pasolini had just finished his Trilogy of Life, which consisted of his adaptations of The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, and The Arabian Nights. Salò would serve as the introduction to his planned Trilogy of Death. However, just before the movie was released, Pasolini was brutally murdered (and it remains unsolved to this day). I cannot even imagine what the man was intending to make as the next two installments, as I believe this covers the worst of human cruelty: taking pleasure in causing horrific suffering. An interesting bit of trivia regarding this film’s production was that Ennio Morricone (who is possibly the greatest living soundtrack artist) only agreed to score this because he was friends with Pasolini.
I discovered this movie by accident in the summer of 2015, after screening a video made by WatchMojo.com, who make videos covering a wide variety of culture in the form of Top 10 lists. This particular video I saw was “Top 10 Movies You Can Only Watch Once”, and while Salò did not make the list, it was included as an honorable mention with a brief ten second clip in which one of the characters utters an extremely disturbing line. Shocked by this, and curious, I googled the movie, and experienced every emotion that I have described throughout this post. I could not get it off my mind for months, and I felt the urge to discuss it with people. The rhetoric that I used made me sound similar to a highly sensitive fundamentalist condemning an emerging controversial trend from the pulpit. I joked with people that after learning about Salò, every other movie that existed was now the equivalent to a Disney movie for me. It calloused me to all sorts of horrors in the world, so much so that when I watched HBO’s Chernobyl in 2019 and came across the scene depicting the Soviet military killing all the dogs abandoned by their Pripyat families in order to prevent the spread of radiation poisoning, I did not flinch.
I finally saw the movie three or four years later after I purchased a copy distributed by the Criterion Collection, and I was not as horrified as I anticipated myself to be. I did gag throughout the “mangia la merde” scene (you will be spared from imagining its contents if you cannot read Italian, or any other Romantic language). It was very similar to when I discovered The Exorcist just before I turned thirteen. After being horrified and obsessed for months, I finally saw it and realized the bark was worse than the bite.
This movie struck a nerve with me because of what it depicts: privileged figures getting away with crimes simply because of their social status. That must be the greatest injustice in the world. There is no justice in Salò, as the four main characters go off to live the rest of their lives as they please. Or at least we are left to that assumption, as history tells us that the war will end and countless persons from all across the social spectrum will be held accountable for their crimes against humanity. But for the sake of this film and its thesis, these men will get away with it.
But why am I writing this post and sharing the details of what is likely the most controversial movie of all time? Perhaps it is because the Marquis de Sade has left an impression on me, and I will take joy in exposing you to this nightmare? As I do not drink, I often serve as the babysitter for my intoxicated friends, and the benefit of being sober is that I sometime get to play games with them. On some occasions I show them the trailer and giggle at their reactions.
Many of my readers (which will hopefully include more than just my mom and my brother’s girlfriend) will likely shut their window containing this post and move on, yearning for a more neutral post that will not elicit crazy reactions. But this is the reality of art, sometimes controversial and disturbing themes are needed and they can prove to be masterpieces, as Pasolini has proven here. Those of you who have the stomach to pursue their curiosity after reading this essay: all I can say to you is “Good luck”.