Or: What's the Italian For 'A Man Walks Into a Talent Agent's Office and Says...'?
I'm gonna preface this review by explaining something about myself that some of you who know me in real life already know.
When it comes to warnings, I can be kind of an idiot. By 'kind of' I mean, 9 times out of 10 when people tell me not to look at something, there's a voice inside me that goes "...you know you're gonna look, right?"
I would be utterly screwed if the Ark of the Covenant were presented to me. This is the kind of curiosity that makes H.P. Lovecraft protagonists.
Further, it's this siren's call of morbid curiosity that lead to this entry.
This is one of those movies, we all encounter this at least once, where you learn about its reputation before you learn about the film itself. Said reputation spurred me to look up the info on the movie...what I read left me unsettled and a touch disgusted...
...and realizing, much as I hated to admit it, that sooner or later, I would be watching this movie.
From the titles for this week's entry, some of you may already know what I'm talking about. In which case, you may want to back away from the splash zone, cause this entry, we're taking a trip to a little town called Salò.
Trying to explain this film for anyone unfamiliar with it is...somewhat daunting, really, so let me try and boil this down as best I can.
In the beginning, we had Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. A well-respected director with a keen eye for shooting some very beautiful and acclaimed movies, most notably his 'trilogy of life' films that lead to this project. Sometime after finishing Arabian Nights, he reportedly fell into a depression. If there's one thing that you can count on when a director gets depressed, it's that the characters in his works WILL suffer for it.
In keeping with this, Pasolini shot for the big leagues with this, his final film, 'Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom.'
As the title suggests, the story is loosely adapted from the infamous work by the Marquis de Sade (which, in my idiotic sense of car crash draw, I will likely subject myself to some day.) Transporting the story of human nature's tendencies toward's cruelty and moral relativism to 1940s Italy (fun fact: the Italians view the town of Salò in particular as a reminder of their time as a fascist state.) Here, four men, still credited as libertines despite the time and setting change, all propose the ultimate orgy. With the clout offered to them by their position and soldiers, they round up nine young men and nine young women. They then inform them all that, for the next 120 days, they are at the mercy of these four men and their numerous attendants. What follows is like a waking nightmare as the unfortunate youths are subjected to all manner of physical, mental, and sexual torture with intent to debase and dehumanize.
Now, with a premise like that, one would expect this film to be simply tasteless sleaze. A cavalcade of violence and sex designed purely to shock, offend, and/or titilate. Surprisingly, it isn't. It's certainly shocking, don't get me wrong, and within the context of the film, their actions have no real purpose other than serving the twisted whims of the libertines.
Despite this, the film feels neither exploitative nor titilating. In fact, I'd say if you know anyone who feels titilated by this film, you might want to keep your distance from them. Not to tell you who to see and not to see, but that right there's a warning sign if ever I've heard one. The film handles its actions in a very straightforward manner, actually. It never feels like it's trying to manipulate your emotions or play up an act excessively. It plays itself out and lets the very horror of the act itself speak for it.
Also, outside of the context, the film's horrors certainly carry a message with them. Rather than simply being 'because I felt like it' or shock for shock's sake, the brutality in this movie says a lot, both on its own and to its audiences about inhumanity and the dehumanizing effects of certain systems on people on several levels. On the surface, there's the obvious theme of how fascism leads to those in power treating those beneath them as subhuman and casually abusing and discarding them at their whim. On the next level up, Pasolini adds some of his own political touches to the film, lending the ideas of loss of humanity to how a capitalist system can destroy people on every level. This was confirmed to a degree by Pasolini himself with regards to the now infamous 'Circle of Shit' section of the movie, where he confirmed the victims being made to eat feces was in part an extension of his own feelings towards consumer capitalism and junk food.
While I definitely find both of the levels of this interpretation interesting, I honestly feel like they have a sense of missing the forest for the trees, as it were. I mean, there's a definite universal idea behind this movie that goes beyond singular political alignments, and I think de Sade himself had intended. To say this is just what one ideology does to people seems to simplify the fact that, as history has shown us, just about any political or ideological system can devolve to such a point to demonstrate a propensity for cruelty like this movie features, and in some cases, worse.
On that last note, it's interesting to note that, for as strong a reputation as this film has for its shocking and graphic content, from the sounds of things, the original text is actually MUCH worse. By this, I mean on reading samplings of it, I can imagine de Sade thumbing through a copy of American Psycho and thinking "Oh, isn't this cute?"
In terms of how this holds up as a movie beyond its ideology and interpretations therein, I think this is a big part of what really helps separate this from just being written off as another shocker. The film itself is shot with a great eye for its visuals. Its soul-searing visuals. ...OK, even outside of that, Pasolini gets some beautiful countryside shots, and in general some of the scenes that aren't dedicated to depravity and human debasement are pretty damn nice looking. The acting likewise, is mostly pretty good, especially given how much of the cast weren't established professionals. I mean, you have to admire a group of teens who are willing to be filmed in various stages of undress being made to do all sorts of horrible things.
...though on this note, it does help that, from the sounds of things, the actual filming was pretty loose. A lot of light goofing around and whatnot, with much of the real horror coming together in the editing room (so much so that, in a few scenes, you could still see a few of the 'victims' cracking up in the background.) Despite that, it's still played well enough that you do feel pity for these innocents, as well as a degree of disgust/shock when some of them go from victim to attacker in the infamous 'Circle of Blood' finale.
The more I distance from the initial shock of the film, the more my opinion of it kind of seems to be a curious split. On the one hand, I have to admit, I am glad that I saw it. There are some very interesting ideas in the film, and while they sometimes DO get lost in the noise of the "OH GOD!" factor that comes from de Sade's contribution, the ones that do get through do leave an impression on you. At the same time, while it was worth the watch, I'm not sure I can honestly say I'd be in a hurry to watch it again or own it. Which is both a good thing and a bad thing in a way. While I don't feel a burning desire to own it, there's a part of me that feels I won't actually need to, but rather that it's going to simply stay with me (for good or ill.)
One of those awkward moments where the experience isn't pleasant, but there is a certain reward to it afterward in a way. To those who do own and rewatch it, I tip my nonexistent hat to you, for you have a higher constitution than I. I also feel a sense of relief, some alarm, and admittedly, a touch of disappointment at realizing that we'll never know what the other two parts of the 'death' trilogy this was supposed to be a part of were.
On this final note, that is one other fascinating thing I have to say for this movie. That reputation the film has gained has lent it a sort of unique mythos. Between its intense and controversial subject matter, the circumstances that led to its being made, and Pasolini's unfortunate and somewhat mysterious murder after its completion that may or may not be a result of his final work, the film has gained a sort of strange mystique. Even if you don't see it firsthand, the backstory around it still makes for a fascinating learning project if you feel curious enough to look into it. Hell, if one felt so inclined, they could make a pretty damn interesting documentary just around the legacy around this film, which in some ways almost eclipses the movie itself.
...wow. Made it. Managed to discuss the film in a reasonable manner without numerous capitalized exclamations of shock at the things I've seen in that 1 hour 50+ minute span. I'm torn between feeling rewarded by my sense of curiosity and desiring to throw it down a flight of stairs.
...I should probably do the latter, it'll just hurt me again later.
...and yes, I realize this makes two reviews in a row without screencaps. In this case, it was a blend of a low number of work-safe images and the question of how many cheeky captions could I make for images for this without feeling like an absolute bastard? Even I have limits, you know.
I promise, images will return with the next entry.