Photograph: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection
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Sal, or the 120 Days of Sodom

5 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

Abandon hope, all ye who venture into Pier Paolo Pasolini’s excruciating, extraordinary treatise on fascism and want to emerge with your gag reflexes unengaged. There’s something to turn every stomach in the Italian director’s adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s novel, reset in the titular township that Benito Mussolini briefly turned into a mini-Republic. The story, as such, is simple: Four government officials incarcerate a gaggle of teenagers in a country villa and turn the mansion into a theater of cruelty. Rape, torture and humiliation are hourly occurrences; in the movie’s most notorious sequence, black-shirted thugs force the prisoners to literally eat shit. Pasolini’s willingness to showcase horrific acts with a pitiless gaze led the film to be censored, suppressed and vilified the world over. The nausea and the fury, however, obscured the message that the committed Marxist was using Sade’s work to express: Capitalism, which Pasolini considered “the new fascism,” was turning people into complicit meat puppets, good only for fulfilling their master’s pleasures.

Given that Salò’s use of austerity was just as important as the employment of atrocities, it’s fitting that Criterion provides this significant work of subversion with a sumptuous visual transfer. Of the three documentaries on the second disc, “Salò: Yesterday and Today” is arguably the most vital extra. Not only do we get footage of the artist directing the climax (“Once you walk over here, then you put the flame under his genitals….”), but it contains a telling quote from one of the actors: “The mood [on set] was jovial.… When I saw the film, I wondered how we’d made something so awful without realizing it.” Once again, art imitates life.

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