Don’t Watch It, John! Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

The idea behind the “Don’t Watch It, John!” series is to find cinema that’s so rotten, so foul, so incredibly fetid that no other human being would dare recommend it to another human being. For this entry in the series, I’ll be discussing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). It’s a bit of a departure- usually, this series has involved very obviously bad films that populate the IMDb Bottom 100. Salò, believe it or not, is a Criterion Collection film. But as you will read moving forward, there were plenty of reasons for its inclusion as a “Don’t Watch It” film. May God have mercy on my soul.

What is SalòWikipedia describes it thusly: 

Salò is a controversial 1975 Italian drama film written and directed by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini with uncredited writing contributions by Pupi Avati. It is based on the book The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade. Because of its scenes depicting intensely graphic violence, sadism, and sexual depravity, the movie was extremely controversial upon its release, and remains banned in several countries to this day. It was Pasolini’s last film; he was murdered shortly before Salò was released.

The film focuses on four wealthy, corrupted fascist libertines after the fall of Benito Mussolini‘s Italy in 1944 who kidnap a total of eighteen teenage boys and girls and subject them to four months of extreme violence, sadism, sexual and mental torture. The film is noted for exploring the themes of political corruption, abuse of power, sadism, perversion, sexuality, and fascism.

Who stars in this cinematic monstrosity? Frankly, nobody of note. In the very least, nobody of note to American and/or most English speaking audiences.

The Stats: IMDb has it at 6.1 out of 10 stars. Out of the 21 critics who have reviewed it for Rotten Tomatoes, 71% have given it a favorable rating. In other words, it’s not even considered “rotten”. But as you can see from the description above, it’s not the quality of the film that makes it a candidate for the series. It’s the brutal content. If you proceed from this point, I really must warn you that there are spoilers. And more importantly, these spoilers are vile, disgusting, and brutally shocking. The rest of this article is not for those with queasy stomachs. I try to take things lightly at TDYLF but I am as serious as a heart attack about my preceding statement.

The Review: Salò is the most difficult film I’ve ever seen and/or reviewed and I have no clue how to balance the good with the bad. First and foremost, it should be noted that the power themes are strong, tied tightly to sexual control. It’s a meditation on the interplay between anarchy, the power-holding elite, and the lower classes. The film begins in fascist Italy in 1944, with the ominous quote, “All things are good when taken to excess.” A few seconds later, the anarchists/elite postulate that “Bourgeois recoil not from slaughter though victim be son and daughter”, eliminating money as any sort of motivation for what’s about to happen- the systematic rounding up of teenaged children to be used in the sadistic undertaking. I’m not sure that there’s ever any reason given for the undertaking.

The undertaking is the complete and total subjugation of 18 teens (9 boys, 9 girls). They are stripped, given an appalling set of rules that they must live by lest they be punished severely, and more or less re-educated as dirt, as dogs, as absolutely nothing but slaves who exist to service the people who are conducting the sadistic experiment. Rape- both homosexual and heterosexual- is part of the program, as is constant learning from a woman who describes to them- with great delight- her own re-education into this twisted ethos. Teens who successfully inculcate the awful values (such as being able to masturbate in appropriate ways and at appropriate times) are “rewarded” with meaningless prizes like weddings to one another. It is a total institution in every way. Every facet of their lives is controlled, drilled into them, by the sadists. They are literally prompted to behave like dogs, eating from a dog dish, restrained by a leash, consuming what I presume was dog food. Away from the teens, the sadists often expound upon their nihilist ethos, peppering it with discussions of Nietzsche and others.

After a lengthy introduction to the ethos, the film splits around the halfway point into something called “The Circle of Shit”. Coprophagia (fecal consumption) had been hinted at throughout the film’s first half. It became a completely brutal reality in the second half. It is horribly protracted across several scenes and lasted for approximately twenty minutes. It felt like a lifetime when I was watching it. There is simply no way to sugarcoat it. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever witnessed in any film by a wide margin. It was graphic and repulsive enough that it literally made me gag multiple times. I gagged hard enough that at the end of the sequence, my stomach hurt and I was trembling.

Once the Circle of Shit concludes, the film approaches denouement. The teens are tortured some more, then murdered, as the sadists look on and pleasure themselves. Nobody escapes. Frankly, the kids are secondary to everything. They’re barely personalized in the movie. They are merely a vehicle for the brutal experiment to take place. And this is one of the issues I have with the film. As a viewer, we are given no lifeboat. There’s nothing at all for us to glom onto, to give us any hope at all. Like the teens, we are exposed to nothing more than Pasolini’s disgusting whims.

I will readily admit, I “get” what Pasolini was trying to do. Or at least, I think I understand it- using the torture of the youth (in such a shocking way) as analogy in a condemnation of the fascists populating Italy in the World War II era. Or perhaps it was (also) a condemnation of Italian capitalists who ceded so much to the fascists in the years leading up to Mussolini. Purely in the terms of filmmaking, it establishes a tone- that the sadists believe in total evil, and that excess is good. And Pasolini follows through on that theme completely. Purely in that regard, it is a “success” as a film. But I can’t put it in such black and white terms.

What I witnessed was revolting in ways that I never imagined, even with a really healthy dose of fair warning before seeing the film. It was pure torture imposed upon the film’s viewers and I’m not sure I understand the point of it all. Establishing his fascist analogy didn’t require twenty minutes of fecal consumption and countless rape scenes. I’d never advocate censorship in a million years. If a director wants to create something like this, it’s certainly their prerogative. I supposed I’d hope in an ideal world that such censorship wouldn’t be needed because people would employ their own self-censorship. I just can not imagine there being any excuse- not even artistic license- for creating something like this. And to drive my point home, this is the first and only time I’ve ever said anything like that about any movie I’ve ever seen.


Filed under Foreign Film, Movies

53 responses to “Don’t Watch It, John! Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

  1. Kelly

    My stomach hurt just from reading this! Once I learned it was based on the work of the Marquis de Sade’s, I knew it couldn’t be good. I sure hope you’re able to recover from the torture of watching that movie.

  2. nimorphi

    A coworker was telling that they like shocking horror/torture porn movies. I told them about Salo and their response was “Why would you watch something like that?”
    The worse part of this movie it is actually a good movie. The same can be said for A Serbian Film. Another movie that I will NEVER watch again.

    • It just crossed so many lines. If any or all of the chicanery had been tempered a bit, I might even have a favorable opinion of the whole movie. But it kept going… and going… and going…

  3. One of my best and oldest friends was obsessed with this movie for YEARS, to the point where it was almost a personal fetish. Not that he practiced any of the things in the movie, mind you, it was just the depravity of the characters and the extreme torture that appealed to him for reasons I’ve never understood. Wanna know the funny part?

    His name, too, is John!

  4. Oh John, this Lunch time you have succeeded in putting me off my sandwich!! HAHA

    I definitely will NOT be watching this film anytime soon. I am too weak in nature and would so vomit and be unable to sleep for a week!!!

    Thanks for doing it for me matey!

    • My stomach was queasy for a good hour or two after I took the movie out. Just thinking about it now sort of makes my stomach turn a bit.

  5. Dude

    As a personal friend of the author, many times texts and conversations end up here for everyone to read and enjoy. Hell, I think the entire “If you read only one article” post was straight from our texts….Here is an excerpt from another conversation we had Friday.

    John: Did I tell you that I got “Salo” in the mail yesterday? I’ve been toying with the idea of putting it in the DVD player and forcing (unnamed Friend) to watch it.
    Dude: I looked it up when it was mentioned on your blog. Saw couple of scenes on you tube. Kind of sick, kind of goofy. Depends on how much you “get into” the movie
    John: I just want to see if I can survive the shit-eating.
    Dude: Yeah, the shit part could get ya. Monsturd was bad enough…
    John: I guess it’s oranges dipped in chocolate.
    Dude: Yeah, and jaws was fake too…

    Sunday I got a couple more texts, personal favorites being…
    John:I’m going to go ahead a nix the idea of loaning Salo to you.
    John: With on hyperbole, it makes human centipede look like a Disney Movie. I’ve gagged several times.
    Dude: The clips I saw made me feel queasy, and that was YouTube…

    You can see by the tone of conversation, it went from slightly humorous, to straight up disgust and uneasiness. I salute you sir for actually pulling through and finishing it. And I thank you for not loaning it to me, and I am sure our “unnamed Friend” is glad you did not spring that one on his unsuspecting ass!

  6. …i will admit when i first heard about this i went back and forth on whether i wanted to watch it or not, but i think after reading this i will nix that idea. Especially if it makes Human Centipede look like a disney movie…seriously

    And i recently saw a movie that might fit in this series. It doesn’t any feces eating or anything like that and there is only 1 rape scene in the movie, but it wasn’t a pleasant movie. I will say that none of the brutality/unpleasantness felt put in fro the sake of it, and i think it did serve a point. I did find the main character’s constant use of the word “fag” annoying and unnecessary tho

  7. Haven’t seen any of Pasolini’s films. This one sounds horrifying. I would like to see The Gospel According to St. Matthew at some point, but only because it was somewhat of an inspiration for Scorsese when he made The Last Temptation of Christ (I believe he was going for the same realistic look, rather than that 50s/60s Biblical epic look).

  8. I didn’t think the movie was terrible, and that excess line gives me the shivers every time. I understand that Pasolini was trying to do it all as a metaphor for sadistic Fascist anarchy, but this could easily have been a 30 minute X-rated docudrama for college students to watch. Not some glorified sick-fest that gave Eli Roth one or two bad ideas.

  9. Great review!

    I was just saying that this is a film I never want to watch not long ago over at my blog, you’re review has certainly convinced me to continue to avoid it!

  10. Thanks for the warning, John, though I have zero interest in seeing just from reading the premise! And that picture, ouch… it hurts just seeing THAT!

  11. Wheelsdude

    This is a film which I have toyed with the idea of watching on and off for the past two years or so. I haven’t done it yet and for the exact reasons that both you and others have laid out in this post. I think that I would puke watching this. The funny thing is that this is the same reason why I refuse to watch Human Centipede, and here you state that this makes Human Centipede look like a Disney film. Reading those words does not bode well for anyone who wants to convince me to watch this film. My problem is that I’m in the midst of watching all the films in the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” book, and my goal is to watch every single one of them; however, Salo is in the book. FML.

    • Haha… I love the “FML” ending to that comment.

      Human Centipede was rough, but the brutal stuff only lasts for a minute or three at a time, and (unlike Salo) you can grab onto the characters in the hopes that they escape. I’m not sure I’d recommend it if you’ve got a queasy stomach, but I’ve honestly seen worse. Something like Dogtooth, for instance… if you can handle Dogtooth, you can handle Human Centipede.

      • Oh God Dogtooth…that was the most uncomfortable movie watching experience i’ve had in a long, long time. Although part of that might have been from a misleading netflix movie summary.

        And honestly once the human centipede was made, that was all i could focus on during the entire movie. Every time it was on screen, i couldn’t pay attention to anything else. But then again, it did market itself as a horror movie and it definitely horrified me, so i guess it did what it set out to do

  12. The 70s was a very disturbing time period in the underground cinema area. The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, Cannibal Holocaust, Faces of Death, and all the “mondo” shockumentaries and exploitation films included. At least Salo had some deeper connotation, but at the same time I think that might make it more disturbing.

    Another thing that gets me about Salo is that even though now we have films such as The Human Centipede or A Serbian Film, these and many other recent films are so over the top and ridiculous it decreases their amount of fear for me. It gets to a point of almost comical scenarios of just disgust, similar to how many gore films are about being gross rather than disturbing. Salo was both, and in a context that isn’t that unbelievable in its time period. Not to mention the book by de Sade is even worse, and he fully relished in all of his depravity. It’s disturbing to me that he thoroughly enjoyed it, and simply believed that moral value was a human creation and didn’t exist.

    • I think you’ve nailed it re: the discrepancy between, say, Human Centipede and Salo. Or even Cannibal Holocaust and Salo.

      I was laughing with a friend the other day because so much of the disturbing 70’s stuff originated in Italy. Salo, Cannibal Holocaust, Zombi 2 (ok, not disturbing, but full of shark-vs-zombie crazinesss)… and possibly Sweet Movie? I’m not sure about that one.

      • Well Italian and Spanish cinema can easily get very eerie or disturbing fast, imo, possibly because many things represented a visceral assault on politics (Salo), Religion (particularly Catholicism, which was the basis of much 70s horror, most notably some of the most unnerving), and family values (Fists in the Pocket), all of which are very closely related in both countries’ cultures.

        That or in the case of Zombi 2 and Cannibal Holocaust, they just wanted low budget films that would get a lot of commotion, lol.

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  15. Hannibal Hobbes

    Personally, I love Salo. I enjoy the extremism and utter depravity explored in the film. It allows all of us human animals to vicariously explore our sadistic fantasies. It did not affect me as much as I wanted to. Oddly enough, the only film that ever “disturbed” me is Irreversible. I only wish there were more high quality films like Salo and Irreversible. Oh, and I found Dogtooth to be quite boring and not at all disturbing. It basically was a quasi-remake of Happiness, which is extremely funny and not disturbing either.

    • That’s completely fair. I guess we all have our buttons. I can handle a lot of stuff. Fecal consumption- especially that much fecal consumption, and without the camp of something like Human Centipede- is definitely a button for me.

      I know it’s not fair to compare the two. Obviously, Salo is a higher quality than HC. It’s just that they’re both linked by poo-eating.

      • anne

        I’ve read that his use of fecal consumption is a metaphor for fast food and consumerism, believe it or not. Passolini was disgusted by the way consumerism had taken over society, and fast food, apparently, was the icing on the cake. I still haven’t been able to watch this movie. Maybe had I decided to suck it up and watch it a few years ago I could’ve handled it. I have a baby girl now (thirteen months old) and ever since I gave birth, I just haven’t been able to handle certain types of flicks anymore. I use to be such a fan of Italian Horror, but now I just have such a hard time with it. Having a child really changes you (especially if you’re the mother). I also believe, too, that it may have something to do with the fact that I have a daughter, and a lot of these movie depict horrible violence against women. These things are just a lot more difficult for me to handle now.

        • I’ve had that same discussion with a few of my friends who have children now. They’re huge movie buffs but there are definitely certain films they struggle with now. It’s a lot easier, in a bad way, to internalize certain acts on film when you’ve got an extra life to worry about.

          • My dad is kind of the opposite of that. In fact, he saw a Serbian film,which i personally have been unable to get the courage to watch so far. It is really,really hard for a film to really freak him out

  16. I think people should watch this film for the point that it is quite emotionally moving, we all have a shared experience in the way this film portray;s how the upper echelon of society can and will do what they please because they see fit. I could see a more modern interpretation of this film being done concerning third world workers and the lengths we people in “civilized” society’s go to for the production of our material goods. Salo should be watched and we should have conversations about why such degradation is even thought of being portrayed. Obv. for it’s own sake is not a good enough reason to warrant such actions (IMO) but if there is a pertinent reason then by all means we should produce more films so more people can attempt to feel and understand what others go through.

  17. allthewhile

    I’ll start off to say that you should be glad only twenty minutes of the movie are dedicated to shit intake. The book wouldn’t give you much repreive.

    I read the book first, then saw this movie. The latter is quite tame. Marquis de Sade wrote this while in prison, aluded that he was framed by his mother-in-law (if you can find his complete “Grande Lettre” that he wrote from within to his wife). The book is satire at a hyper level, taken to the extreme. Though somewhat of nobility, he and most aristocrats were libertines to various levels. He admits to his first charges of ejaculating on a cross, and sodomy which was a crime back then. All other charges are debatable, and herein lies his utter defiance to those who persecuted him. The four main characters are all from the high pillars of society, the most influential on said society.

    The movie does a great job to convey this, but rest assured the four from the book would’ve eaten them alive. Sade was a philosopher, a thinker. And quite correct in alot of his ‘teachings’.

    Read the book if you haven’t yet. You’ll appreciate the movie and the director’s work. His only vision was the time and setting, and has his four as borderlone impotent. The four in the book are hyper sexual beasts.

    Words cannot describe the book, but rest asured you’ll be glad the movie never went as far.

  18. Wee Little One

    I’ve read a lot of commentary on this movie. Much of which was negative. I must say the fact that the movie ends with little hope of the teens is quite disappointing. It was very disturbing to watch… To summarize… Circle of mania was just that manic. Circle of shit was two girls and a cup.. Circle of blood was hostel…

    • Mitch

      I found the lack of reaction of the majority to such treatment to be analogous to the lack of the majority Jews to rise against their oppressors in the camps. The willingness of some of the children to take complicit positions as ‘guards’ in the torture of their ‘brothers and sisters’ also seemed more than coincidence; additional alignment with the behavior of the Jews. Finally, the willingness to turn against the majority for self preservation, but still suffer the same fate also seems applicable. All the rats are punished with similar impunity. At almost any point, the ‘children’ could have overthrown the libertines. Instead, their commitment to their self interest prevented their survival. Only the uncircumcised penises give contrarian testimony to the holocaust connection.

  19. FireFly

    I don’t know what this says about me, but the most troubling part, imho, was that creepy ass balding ginger! Something about his yellow, insanely crooked, weasel like teeth, his beady little malevolent eyes….he just sold evil and crazy really well.

    That being said, for me, NOTHING can be more stomach turning than A Serbian Film. Though I might have skipped through the Circle of Shit a bit : 3.

    Quite frankly, it takes a lot to REALLY shock me, at least in a fictional context. For some reason I found most of this to be fairly tolerable. But, not to go off topic again….Serbian Film was one of those movies you’re warned about that actually did live up to the shocking, sickening hype. This hardly holds a candle to it.

  20. Armin

    reading the article & most of the comments, it proves to me that Salo is not movie for me to watch considering the most disturbing movie I’ve ever watched was the Saw franchise (you are free to laugh at me all you want. I know I’m a traumatised little bitch) yet the further I read into the article & the comments, I became more & more intrigued to give the damn thing a shot. even though, of course, there are red flags & alerts all through this webpage & I’m certain that if I do watch it, I will regret it for the rest of my life

  21. I can understand completely how a movie such as Salo can get under one’s skin and test one’s patience… But from start to finish as i view any film, i fully realize its a movie.
    And whether i enjoy a movie that contains graphic violence beyo

    I’m not in any way interested in lots of horrible scenes from this movie and plenty of other films i’ve watched that contain(torture, death, etc, etc. etc)..

    What is completely overlooked in Salo, is the camera work, cinematography, costumes, set decoration, etc).. I’m not surprised that people seem to absorb and remember the scenes and parts of the movie they find so tasteless and disturbing..

    I find it ironic that those who hate this movie seem to only talk about parts of the movie that contain the things they hated most (torture, brutality, etc, etc)… I secretly think many have never watched this film entirely…

    I think alot of people tend to forget that some of there favorite movies contain (“187”) Murder Death Kill motivated scenes or themes that are rampant throughout the whole movie they seem to enjoy or even love..

    Not to compare salo with everything else out there, i understand salo is a different beast on the surface and all around for most.. But i’ve seen other scenes in previous movies i’ve watched that contain graphic violence and hit nerves that i never felt before i wish to never ever feel in reality or for any prolonged period in reality i should add..

    I don’t agree with the themes throughout salo but i would not say it was a horrible movie based on my rememberance of watching it.. It’s a movie i highly recommend to friends whom i know share the same passion of the many aspects of film making..

    Like i say to myself over and over again, no one forces me to watch this or that i make the choice based on my own curiousity..

  22. Laura

    I read a couple of reviews about the movie.
    Some clearly celebrated the movie, calling it avand-garde, hinting towards the realily of what we are through such powerful measures.
    Though a person has free choice over how he deals with his subject. I’m not able to comprehend the fact, why did Pasolini went to such extremity to bring it out. Was it necessary ? Or completely pointless ?
    This is a movie, where you don’t have any straightforward opinions/reactions. And of course, who’d want to watch it over again ?

  23. rossanamasuello3

    I think this review is quite superficial, doesn’t analyse any of the points made in the film, doesn’t contextualise the film with the novel is based on and doesn’t even slightly take in consideration the author’s background and ideals. You are disgusted by that eating excrement scene, but you are not disgusted when you eat a MacDonald which hopefully in 2016 everyone knows it’s something of a worse level than shit.
    If everything lasted a bit less in this film, you wouldn’t feel that necessary pain that you should feel when you see the direction humanity has been taking for quite long now. Pasolini wanted to warn people of what capitalism was going to do with the world. And well it didn’t manage, not even by being this explicit. Imagine if he tried any less.

  24. Guy Sir

    Y’all are Poon’s I watched that movie slept like a rock woke up and watched it again. And I ate pudding. And brahts. And even some Corn.

  25. kunjiraaman

    The second part of the movie is titled The circle of Shit….and my friends Pasolini is not kidding..

  26. Theresa

    Film producers only mimick that which take place in the world and this film though horrid and evil to the core mirrors what does take place and it’s real and more grotesque then it’s portrayed. God’s JUDGEMENT is coming.

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