Or The 120 Days of Sodom

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto P. Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti, Caterina Boratto, Elsa de Giorgi, Helene Surgere, Sonia Saviange
Director:  Pier Paolo Pasolini
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  116 Minutes
Release Date:  August 26, 2008

“We fascists are the only true anarchists.”

Film (zero stars)

It’s hard for me to believe, but I always feared there would come a day when I would actually have to ravage a film released by The Criterion Collection.  And I always suspected which one it was going to be when the day came.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notorious Salo became one of the most sought-after titles for DVD enthusiasts when the Criterion release originally went out of print a number of years ago.  Used copies were going for hundreds of dollars on auction websites.  It always left me scratching my head…couldn’t we have gone to the well for something like Napoleon instead?

It may have been a case of reputation’s shadow far outweighing substance.  Salo has been hated and praised, reviled and cherished, put down and built up like few films I’ve ever experienced in my life.  And may I just be clear…I don’t WANT to experience another one like it.

Based on The 120 Days of Sodom from the Marquis de Sade, Salo is an updated look at depravity and torture, set in the more modern era of World War II Italy.  Politically, Europe was ripe for plucking by maniacal fascists, and Pasolini used this bit of history as the foundation for a tale of unbridled decadence and deviance.  You don’t so much watch this film as much as endure it.  It’s like being challenged to eat a live bug, but far worse.

Young teens (I think) are systematically rounded up and brought to the fascists’ pleasure palace, where their bodies exist only for the sadistic pleasure of their tormentors.  With a strange lady who tells stories of eroticism and violence tantalizing the men’s libidos, they constantly set up sessions of torture and humiliation.

Like what, you’re probably asking?  Don’t make me go there.  All right…lest you think I engage in hyperbole.  You’ll see sexual organs burned and mutilated, tongues sliced, every kind of depraved sex act you can imagine and many you probably never wanted to, and my personal favorite, the feces.

It starts when one girl cries for her dead mother and one of the facists, aroused by her tears, takes an unceremonious dump on the floor and forces the poor kid to eat it.  Soon it’s an all out banquet of human waste…served as food, offered in baths, and so on.  Or to put it another way…you only THOUGHT you’d seen ‘shitty’ movies before.

Is there a point?  Well, like all works of art, no matter how twisted and devoid of morality, that’s the question.  Some have seen Salo as the ultimate condemnation of Italy’s compliance to the horrors that were unfolding in war-torn Europe.  Sounds noble enough, but am I being a prude if I suggest that such a statement could have been made WITHOUT the copious amounts of crap?

I wish I could sit here, having sat through this wretched film for the second time in my life, and offer you hope that there really is something of artistic merit at play here.  I kind of wish I could at least convince myself of that, if not any of you.  Maybe my imagination just isn’t encompassing enough for that.  Worse has been said about me.

At best, maybe Salo is an ultimate litmus test for your own sense of decency.  Maybe if you can watch this film and find you feel nothing apart from revulsion and nausea, you’re in a good place in your life.  If you find any of it intriguing, absorbing, or titillating in the least…well, frankly, I don’t want to know you.

Video ***

The original Criterion release showed its age and lack of care over the years, but now with a new high definition anamorphic transfer, Salo has come into its own, with more detail, better coloring, and a cleaner looking print.  There are still some bits of softness and some spots and marks here and there, and it lacks the true vibrancy of a more modern film, but overall, this disc demonstrates a marked improvement.  Sorry to anyone who coughed up a week’s salary to buy the original out of print release from eBay.

Audio **

The audio doesn’t make many demands, but you have a choice of original Italian or English dubbed offerings.  There’s not a lot of dynamic range, but given the age, the soundtrack is plenty serviceable.

Features ***

The first disc includes the original trailer.  The second disc contains three full length documentaries on the film and a pair of new interviews, with production designer Dante Ferretti and film scholar Jean-Pierre Gorin.  Rounding out is a new booklet with essays and diary excerpts.


Every critic has one movie that he considers the worst film he’s ever seen.  I’ve seen a few wretched offerings in my time, but none as depressing nor as distasteful as Salo.  It’s larger-than-life reputation almost guarantees that it will always be seen, and if so, at least this Criterion disc offers as much quality as a movie like this can possibly ask for.

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