I like to think that due to my personality and many years of hardcore movie watching, I'm pretty unshockable. Over the years, I've sat through the blatant racism of Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, the "ultraviolence" of A Clockwork Orange and the fucked-up sexual fetishes in Cronenberg's Crash without so much as breaking a sweat. Sure, they were all uncomfortable at times, but I was never outraged by their explicitness. So when I rented Pier Paolo Pasolini's infamously controversial Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom I thought that I could handle it without a problem. Let's just say, I was wrong. Completely wrong.
I don't want to spoil any of the "plot points" since they are best experienced when confronted with in the moment, but there was a scene in the movie where I nearly vomited on my couch. My stomach literally turned and I even gagged a little bit. A couple of scenes later I literally had to cover my face with my jacket while fast forwarding through the nastiness, barely peeking over the corner of my hood to see if the scene was over (and immediately repulsed again when I realized it was still going on). It was at these moments where I had to stop the move and literally escape back into reality just to regain my composure. Then, in the final moments, I was this time hiding my eyes behind my hands, repeating "Oh my God" over and over again and nervously laughing like a crazy person.
If this sounds like reason enough to dislike Salò, you would be completely wrong. There's something to be admired about a film which can provoke such a reaction from a viewer, especially someone like me who naively assumed they had seen it all. The graphicness may be what haunts you afterward, but Pasolini is careful never to use the horrifying imagery just for the shock value. Salò uses these grotesque images for one of the most potently shocking attacks on fascism, capitalism and religion I've ever witnessed. It is also worth noting that Pasolini unleashes this horror without the usual comforts of a traditional horror film. There's no loud, scary music and, for the most part, the camera is static and unobtrusive in capturing the terrifying acts being perpetrated. This makes it all the more frightening if you ask me.
The fact that Salò is still banned in many different countries around the world is an unfortunate consequence of the film's controversial vision. This is a film every serious student of film should see at some point, if only to experience how powerful and wrenching film at its rawest and most visceral can be. Salò is not a film I ever wish to revisit again in my life but I think I'll always be grateful for allowing Pasolini to take me on a journey through hell. A