Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, the 1975 film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, is out today on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. And while I’m all for classic cinematic works being available in every conceivable format, there’s something grim in the knowledge that this particular movie can now be watched in the highest possible fidelity within the privacy of one’s own home. Salò depicts the sadistic debauchery of a Duke, a Bishop, a Magistrate, and a President in the Nazi-puppet state from which Mussolini ruled Italy. It draws from Dante’s Inferno as well as the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom and notoriously features “rape, torture, coprophagy, mutilation, and murder,” as Richard Brody details in his capsule review for The New Yorker (subscription required). “The film is essential to have seen but impossible to watch,” Brody adds: “a viewer may find life itself defiled beyond redemption by the simple fact that such things can be shown or even imagined.”
So what if you consider yourself a serious film lover but don’t want to find life itself defiled? Do you have to watch this movie? And will you regret it? I asked five films critics these questions earlier this week.
Sadly for my squeamish self, three of the five said more or less straight out that, yes, a serious critic had to see this movie. “I rented it from Kim’s Video (RIP) because I felt like I had to see it,” freelance critic Dan Kois told me, “and yes, a serious cinephile ought to see it.” “Pasolini is a major director,” Scott Tobias of The Onion A.V. Club chipped in, “and I think it’s essential to see Salò in the context of a career (and a life) that often aligned itself with the politically oppressed.” Richard Brody acknowledged that he did regret seeing the movie for the first few minutes afterwards, but added that “those few minutes of despair and crisis are the mark of Pasolini’s art.” (He also pointed me to a lovely blog post about the experience that he wrote for The New Yorker.)
The dissenter was Chris Orr of The Atlantic. “I haven’t seen the film in at least twenty years,” he said, “so many of its particulars are hazy. But I am not generally a fan of the cinema of degradation, which is both easier and vastly less daring than its practitioners seem to imagine. Salò is a prominent example of the genre, but hardly the worst. For that honor I’d be tempted to nominate Michael Haneke’s 2008 remake of his own Funny Games. Little wonder that Haneke has cited Salò as one of his favorite films of all time.”
Slate’s own Dana Stevens came down somewhere in the middle. Like Orr, Tobias, and Kois, she saw it several years ago and hasn’t revisited it. “I don’t know that I’d go around saying that all critics have to see Salò, or any one particular movie (though it certainly makes sense that all critics should have a strong basic film education, ie., have seen some Pasolini). If you have a strong resistance to graphic images as a viewer, that seems worth listening to.” And Stevens has her own limits as a filmgoer:
There’s a Marco Ferreri movie called La Grande Bouffe, another European art-house classic from the same general period as Salò, that’s supposed to be a masterpiece, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to see it for the simple reason that it’s about four men who decide to hole up for a weekend and eat themselves to death, and I’m deeply grossed out by extreme gluttony, eating contests, and the like. So that’s a potentially brilliant movie that I may never see just because the subject matter squicks me out.
Which raises one last question: Is Salò the most revolting film these critics have seen? Apparently not. “You’d think that the ‘Circle of Shit’ would top anything for horrific imagery,” Tobias said, “but in an age when an entire franchise can be built out of characters stitched ass-to-mouth, Pasolini’s film looks almost quaint.” “It was definitely the worst thing I’d seen at the time,” Kois told me, “but these days a monkey could find something more awful on the internet in 1.72 seconds.”
That’s probably true. I’m still not going to watch it.