Firstly, as to why it is the most disturbing film I’ve ever seen: this is due to how viciously and uncompromisingly realistic its depiction of torture is. A sadistic, yet strangely alluring, atmosphere is developed throughout the film, creating a sense of psychological trauma within the viewer. This sensation largely derives from the relationship between spectator and victim, as well as from the way the audience becomes sucked into this masochistic world and begins to ‘enjoy’ the violence. This ‘enjoyment’ brings into question what our roles as spectators witnessing such horror should be. In this case, the question of viewer responsibility remains somewhat open to interpretation, unanswered by the film itself, but what is certain is that Salò pushes the boundaries in forcing us question it ourselves. As viewers, we are often placed in the shoes of the criminals and begin to attain a sense of sadistic ‘enjoyment’ from the victim’s suffering. The four terrifying fascist figures of Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, excellently portrayed by their respective actors, help to further infuse this psychological horror into the spectator and film as a whole. The expressionist approach to the mise-en-scène and the use of classical music – and occasionally a church choir – juxtaposes with the sadistic elements in the film. These aspects work on a deeply psychosomatic level, as well as a visually repulsive one, dividing this work from films which trivialise the pure glorification of violence.
However, the reason I have an infinite amount of respect for the film derives from its ability to portray the limits of the human condition. Salò shows just how demented some people can be, and, more significantly, it acts as a scathing portrayal of fascistic ideals and similar extremes. Underneath its repulsive imagery, Salò indubitably carries heavy political and social commentary on fascism, the Nazi party and totalitarian society at large. It criticises institutionalised, autocratic power, embodying in its graphic visual palette the dehumanising extremes that come to physically manifest themselves upon the victims. The film symbolically illustrates the power that many governments carry and how they often subject their citizens to their own form of horror; in fact, Salò goes to extremes in order to make this point crystal clear.
Pasolini’s assured direction makes these messages evident within this ferociously anti-fascist political work. It is possible these strong personal beliefs – as clearly read in the film – led to Pasolini’s assassination under mysterious circumstances shortly after the film was released. His assassination very well could have been the result of how some people understood the film, with its controversial nature and the amount of ruthless political commentary it carried, which certainly agitated many members of the fascist party. Pasolini creating such a hard-hitting film brings to light why his stance as a homosexual communist, whose father worked for Mussolini, was seen as unfavourable from various contemporary corners.
Salò is a wholly unforgettable horror that gives the viewer a psychologically traumatic experience. Nonetheless, if you look past this, you will find an impeccably shot, masterfully directed, scathing, socio-political critique that is as relevant today as it was in 1975, making this an incendiary masterpiece, whilst remaining one of the most misunderstood films in history.