Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 opus Salò, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom was one of Criterion's first DVD releases back in 1998, but the title quickly went out of print, and in the decade since, secondhand copies of Salò have sometimes commanded upward of a thousand dollars. But in a way, Salò is a movie that should be distributed under the counter. Pasolini marries the perverse visions of the Marquis de Sade with the decadence of Italy's fascist era, trapping the audience in a ritzy Italian mansion with an assortment of naked young people and the coolly philosophical aristocrats who torment them. The movie comments on the degradation of the human spirit by subjecting its characters to some of the most nauseating sexual encounters ever simulated on film. Shit is eaten. Tongues are severed, eyeballs are gouged out, genitals burn. In the words of the movie's authority figures, "All's good if it's excessive."
Salò emerged from an era thick with Eurosleaze, in which drive-ins and arthouses alike programmed "the erotic adventures of so-and-so"—many of those films inspired by Pasolini's own racy adaptations of The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. With Salò, Pasolini looked to negate the giggly titillation of the times by reducing the body to a container for foul fluid, and presenting desire as something base and easily manipulated. As the fascist experiment plays out in Salò, the slaves begin to inform on each other, and to take a certain measure of satisfaction in their captors' attention; meanwhile, those captors keep finding it harder to control their rage, or their dissatisfaction with what they've wrought.
In other contexts, Salò's heavy-handed allegory might seem like overkill, but this a movie predicated on directness. Whenever the progression of depravity threatens to get dull—and it does get dull—Pasolini either goes one step further into the darkness, or he makes a simple stylistic switch by going to a handheld camera, or shooting from a distance. The changes keep viewers disoriented, like the soundtrack's subtle shifts from light big-band music to the rumble of war as the world goes to hell just outside the estate. Throughout, Pasolini keeps asking the audience, "Which side would you rather be on?" And the hell of it is, he doesn't offer many choices.
Key features: More than two hours of documentaries about the making of the film and the repulsion it still provokes.