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December 26, 2011

I watched Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last film, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, tonight. The genius of Salo is also its downfall and why it was banned in several countries. It’s one of those films that, if we let it, succeed in forcing us to confront what we fear the most—the evil that lurks in the depths of the human heart, a horror that’s all the more terrifying because it’s real.

It was tough to watch. But, after thinking about it and learning a little bit about the director and the book it was loosely based on when I got home, I quickly started to appreciate what it does and how it was made. Movies like this make me want to get more into film theory, which I generally scoff at. It’s horrible, yet there are so many genius elements in it that I can’t help but admire such a vile thing.

Much of Salo‘s intensity stems from the unflinching way it addresses the darker side of humanity, the side that enjoys and even revels in the vilest of human transgressions; the side that has the ability to derive pleasure from indulging in what Freud called the ‘death drive,’ with its psychological pressure towards self-destruction and death arising out of a seeming “urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier [i.e., inorganic] state of things.”

In this, Salo exceeds in showing us too much; it takes us over the edge with its stylistic parade of nihilistic sex, violence, and depravity; often all three at the same time. It shows us the kinds of dehumanizing monsters we can truly be, while the entire time wearing a human face. It shows us the extent with which we can desensitize ourselves to even the most extreme acts of violence and cruelty, particularly when continually escalated and viewed over time—one horror becoming so common that another, more extreme horror must take its place in order to produce the same levels of shock, revulsion, and excitement.

Worst of all, in the midst of the film’s climax, where the crescendo of torture, rape, and murder become the focal point of overt voyeurism, we’re forced to realize, if we can allow our shocked psyche to reflect upon the construction of the scene itself, that by the very act of watching this film, we’ve become voyeurs ourselves, and have unwittingly allowed ourselves to be entertained by the very same acts of violence — even if not in the exact same way — that we abhor.

It can be difficult, especially if you are extremely sensitive to scenes of graphic sexual violence and degradation like I am, to fully appreciate the masterful way in which this film explores its themes, from the psychology of fascism and the dangers of passivity to the growing ills of bourgeois society we’d rather ignore. But if you can see beyond its nonchalant brutality, you’ll find something deeply disturbing yet brilliant, an existential social commentary that doesn’t pull a single fucking punch.


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