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Pasolini's infamous Salò remains an appalling cinematic dare

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Among the most infamous movies ever made, Pier Paolo Pasolini's final film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom finds a way to fuse the baroque scatologies of the Marquis de Sade with the legacies of Italy's own fascist history. An allegory for the corrupting influence of unchecked power — as well as a stalwart in the “I bet you've never seen THIS in a movie” school of frat-dare cinephilia — Salò is a film that people invariably discover because of its popular reputation: an assault on complacency and decadence that transgresses the line of decency over and over again. There are beatings, abuses, rapes, murder, coprophagia, desecrations of religious and secular institutions, and nonconsensual surgeries. One might well ask, “Why? Why would any civilized person watch such a thing?"

Pasolini, always a keen observer of social hierarchies and chronicler of the deeper instincts, understood the value of shock, but also the value of having one's message seen. This is not a literal adaptation of Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, because society could not have withstood such a thing. Through elision, condensation, and a more organic, less schematic view of human nature, Pasolini found a way to get right into the diseased heart of human corruption. Four noblemen (a President, a Duke, a Magistrate, and a Bishop — nicely implicating the government, the church, the judiciary, and the gentry) select 18 teenagers, nine boys and nine girls, then subject them to the most horrifying of dehumanizing violations and tortures.

But the vulgar grotesqueries that comprise much of the film are not the point. It is the process that fascinated Pasolini (the film features a bibliography of suggested readings), and it is what makes the film relevant even to this day, when its specific transgressions are readily one-upped in gleeful close-up by R-rated films that play multiplexes without complaint. Submission to corrupt and indecent authority should inspire rebellion and anger, and strengthen the bond between all oppressed peoples. But the further you descend, the more horrifying things become — that's when the true nature of humanity reveals itself. The “me first” mentality of legislators, power brokers, and acquisitionist overlords begets a shameful legacy.

Released in 1975 just a week after Pasolini’s lurid murder — he was run over several times with his own car, under still mysterious circumstances — Salò is a deeply pessimistic and upsetting film, one that retains an unearthly power after almost four decades. If you're watching it to be grossed out, or to freak out your friends, you've already proven its point.

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