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How Film Bros Revived the Sickest Film Ever Made


Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom is as vulgar as its name suggests (and then some), and yet it has seen something of a revival in popularity in recent years. Controversial director Pier Paolo Pasolini made the film in 1975. It is a loose adaptation of a work by the Marquis de Sade, displacing the plot into World War II Fascist Italy, and depicting men in positions of power who kidnap a group of teenagers, and subject them to four months of torture (involving excrement, castration, etc., usually sexual in nature). Pasolini was murdered 20 days before its premier under mysterious circumstances. On a recent episode of the Empire Magazine podcast, Quentin Tarantino recalls a woman’s reaction at one of his showings of the film; “Pasolini was beaten to death on the streets of Rome, and I say: Good riddance!”. How is it then, that Salo has come to escape the slums of infamy and reached prominence among young cinephiles, who go beyond reading of its notoriety and actually watch it?

First, some background. Pasolini was a vehement anti-consumerist and anti-fascist, an intellectual operating in multiple media, and openly criticised his government (going so far as to claim ties to the mafia, which ended up being true). He was also openly gay, and engaged with multiple radical left-leaning parties, despite siding with police after the proletariat student uprising in 1968 (claiming class hypocrisy soured his view of the students, who were rich children, attacking the state by grappling with police, who were underpaid lower class workers themselves). He was also a neo-marxist, opposed Christian Democracy, and didn’t like TV. Pasolini’s continued outspokenness was a threat to many Italians, and many more were disgusted by his art, which unabashedly incorporated his views through metaphor and imagery. Salo would be his most inflammatory work.

There are broad criticisms of films which attempt to cover atrocities, including that any attempt at narrativising the victim’s pain is to render it into entertainment, or that they pull punches to appeal to audiences so that they remain emotionally involved. Schindler’s List, for example, is an amazing and harrowing film, but it is, after all, the story of jews who lived, and men who made a small triumph in the face of the Holocaust. In Schindler’s List, families are lead into chambers, and we fear what’s to come, but the sprouts turn on, and are revealed as showers. Salo does not make such consolations. It is an onslaught of successively nauseating scenes of suffering, meant to please the men of power, which I won’t describe here. As for progression in the story, some victims begin to betray the others out of desperation. Unlike in most depictions of World War II atrocities, this is a work of fiction. Pasolini’s main concern was to reduce the two sides, abuser and victim, into de-personified representations of power and its subjects, and the anarchistic nature thereof (incorporating commentary on chauvinism, consumerism, nihilism, sadism, etc.). Make of this approach what you will.

With the film completed, Pasolini was murdered on the 2nd of November, run over by his car, beaten with a metal bar, and partially burned. Teenager Giuseppe Pelosi confessed, but evidence pointed to the involvement of others. Pasolini’s family agreed and suggested political motivations. Pelosi would go on to completely retract his confession, and point to members of fascist cells as having extorted him into admission. Witness testimony describing five assailants was uncovered, it had been ignored. Pasolini’s death, and its apparent connection to the very evils he criticised in his films cemented his legacy. And so, Salo has always been an important film, but due to its uncomfortable nature, never a popular one. Though it is today as popular as it has ever been, why?

The Criterion Collection is a curated line of home-video releases of arthouse/classic films. Through their unassailable selection of movies, exceptional artwork and packaging, exclusive extras (having invented the commentary track) and a boutique price range, they carved themselves a place as the premier, “exclusive”, distributor of great film to cinephiles. This is a convenient home-base for young movie buffs, who can measure up against one another by this barometer. Certain titles are must haves for them. "How many do you own? Have you seen this fundamental classic? Do you get this meme about an obscure independent Argentine surrealist docu-drama? Oh, you’re a cinephile? Name every movie." Humour particularly plays a role in members feeling that they’re keeping their pretentions in check. Salo is at the perfect crossroads, and has become perhaps the film most synonymous with this cult of Criterion Collectors. It is a film so important, and so commercially unviable (or so it seemed), that Criterion wasted no time, making it their 17th film to be released of about 1500. This alone makes it a standout addition to collectors, but its vileness has played an even larger role. Its reputation among this film community as a gauntlet to be sat through, a challenge to the viewer, has ballooned over the course of 20 or so years. If you enter the likes of r/criterion, film twitter, r/okbuddycinephile, you will know what Salo is, and what it means to the community, well before you have been able to see it, or even come across a more serious take on the film. Newcomers are filled with expectations, as they are surrounded by warnings; “Abandon hope, ye who watches Salo”, and yet feel that they must watch it, or be left out. Salo has become a rite of passage. Once you’ve sat through it, you’ve paid your dues. You’re in on the joke, and what’s more, you’ve experienced a seminal piece of film history.

And so, Salo remains ever relevant, and while the reason for this is ostensibly a joke, it doesn’t take long to find movie lovers who hold it in high esteem, many of whom might never have seen it, were it not for the community’s ability to reframe its unpleasantness as a challenge, not a deal-breaker.