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'Salò' Was the Film That Truly Shocked Me

The internet exposed me to the depths of human cruelty, but it was Pasolini's masterpiece that truly disgusted and beguiled me.

by Joe Bish
Dec 9 2014, 7:00pm

This post originally appeared on VICE UK​

There seems to be a theme developing in ​t​his column where people's most touching experiences with film come from a disturbance. Being rattled is a sensation that takes a while to shake off, and some films swallow you in their quicksand so much it can take some effort to slop yourself out. You can't even escape them in your dreams. I recently finished watching the quite dated campy yet compelling HBO prison drama Oz, and every other night I have a dream about having to shank Miguel Alvarez in the library with a sharpened toothbrush. It's strange.

I was 13 when I got my first email address, the now defunct hotmail.co.uk that was linked to the nexus of my young social life, MSN Messenger. I'd go on forums and websites and just start adding people and talking to them, some I'm still in (vague) contact with today. The internet was a different place back then; it was more like a flea market, with rusty but cool little trinkets for sale, the odd pack of asshole kids setting fire to a cat somewhere. 

Now, it's like a giant Waitrose where the exhausted security guards are imploring everyone to out-nice each other while snooty parents and their yelping, chocolate-covered offspring screech "otherkin' and "sex politics" at a weeping cashier.

My longing for the halcyon days of the web can't be justified without looking at its downsides, however. It exposed a young me to a very real, very visceral side of mortality. Websites like Ogrish and Rotten showing you photos of brains splattered across a parking lot, worms crawling through the mouths and noses of dead kids, dried corpses of prostitutes who'd decomposed to the point where their irises had sunken through their corneas. Some fucking grim stuff.

But it wasn't just the photos; it was the videos, the beheadings, murders, hangings, animal cruelty, and, on places I daren't venture even then, rape and torture. Never before had humanity been exposed to its own cataclysmic cruelty in such an accessible way. It only takes one weird friend or a glimmer of morbid curiosity and you're watching someone's father drown in his own blood while someone slices through his trachea with a Bowie knife.

But I lost no sleep. They were troubling videos, but they didn't trouble me. As I matured, as we all do, my blood lust became weaker and weaker.

I remember seeing Salòon one of those talking-head shows about the Most Disturbing Films of All Time, an incredulous Ross Noble talking about Cannibal Ferox, throwing his arms about, saying, "Reet urpsetting that!" I remember seeing the scene with the feast of human feces out of context, every 10 seconds cutting to some mug going, "I mean, it was just wrong, wasn't it?!" 

This stayed dormant in me until one sunny afternoon, when I decided to download it. I'm sorry if you think downloading is wrong, but I was 17 and had no money and wasn't about to order a fucking Italian art film from the 1970s on Amazon.

I loved it from the opening. The classical music playing over the old-timey credits sequence, displaying the film's name, the actors', and, of course, "Pier Paolo Pasolini," the director, who was  ​murdered 20 days before the film's release in November of 1975.

Pasolini was a controversial figure, his alliance with communism perhaps being the reason behind his death. But he was nonetheless a creature of culture. Salò is loosely based on the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, and is exercised in four parts, in the manner of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, albeit with a wildly different plot. 

It follows four fascist libertines—men of great power and influence—after they kidnap 18 young men and women, before choosing four soldiers with big dicks as their collaborators and taking everyone to a secluded mansion near the titular town. 

The men are all, in their own way, physically grotesque, respectively bloated, lizard-like, scrawny, and nonce-y. Four old madams accompany the men and youngsters, recounting sordid tales from their days as prostitutes over a soft piano while the men humiliate, sodomize, rape, and beat their detainees. They're made to eat pastry with broken glass, marry each other, crawl on their hands and knees in the nude, and, of course, eat shit, all while the men recite almost beautiful sentiments justifying their actions. "Nothing's worse than a breath without odor," one laments, before sodomizing a soldier who is in the process of raping a girl.

The film draws to an almost nauseating close as the libertines murder the remaining captives, taking turns to be voyeurs. Two of the big-dicked guards dance a waltz together, and then it's over.

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I remember the feeling I had when the credits appeared on screen. I was bemused, entertained, disgusted, upset, and beguiled all at once. I read the  ​Wikipedia entry and all related entries over and over. Then I watched it again. And again. I became obsessed with it, with its sentiments, how every time that girl screamed and spat out blood and glass it still shocked me. That eerie, fuzzy 70s camera quality, the loudness of the voices in this empty palace.

Naturally, watching real people die on camera is shocking, and while it's not something I explicitly regret seeing, it also isn't something I'd encourage. But Salò's mixture of deranged philosophical discussion and incredible sadistic cruelty did something else to me. It disgusted me in a way I wasn't familiar with. It was the art with which they performed their deeds, these egregious, slimy, powerful men, espousing the poetry of the ages with their tongues covered in shit and blood.

Salòwas the first film I ever saw that I deemed to be a true work of art. There was no comeuppance, no hero, no villain, no real message other than the twisted sermons given by the madams and dignitaries. Yet, it's greater than the sum of its parts. It's not gore porn or shock schlock. It's detestable and whimsical at once. Things can be funny and heartbreaking. It's a testament to nuance in the extreme, if you can believe it, and showed me how to say one thing and do another, especially in regard to my professional life.

It is a horrendously beautiful film, a cum-covered rose, a masterpiece.

Follow Joe Bish on ​Twitter.