What is considered shocking changes not even as far apart as one generation to another but often from one film to another. The once banned on video Reservoir Dogs now finds itself a constant on Freeview TV channels and The Evil Dead has gone so far the other way that it is now a super popular television series.
Occasionally something comes along that manages to keep its power, due to its timelessness and often grim sense of seeing. Cronenberg’s Crash is one, Lynch’s Eraserhead is another and Pasolini’s Salo is a third that perhaps has grown more shocking as politics and power have grown darker and stronger down the years.
I had never seen Salo before (thanks to it being banned for most of my life in home formats) but being a lover of the cinema it is one of those films that pops up on every kind of list – most important films, most shocking films, basically it lived equally at the top, on the lists of auteurs worldwide and at the bottom, on the lists of Whitehouse and her devil spawn of censors and white knight moralists.
The first thing to take in is that despite the clips you may have seen and even the stills used in the Blu advertising, Salo is not a sex movie. It is not erotica. Sure it uses sex and presents you with sexual scenes, but the way they are presented and what they mean, means that anyone with any normal sense of sexuality will feel, not so much as if they have had a bucket of cold water thrown over them, but more bag after bag of ice. There will be moments when you will want to turn away, the frames Pasolini uses, put you in the eyes of the oppressors and ask you whether or not you would do exactly the same thing if put in such a position. At the start, these characters are played almost in a pantomime fashion, as they look at, leer at and choose from a plethora of boys and girls to accompany them on their power trip. Soon though, they almost grow horns as you see the devil played out, cancelling out their goonish leers and taking lives as easily as sipping drinks.
A film as infamous as Salo deserves a decent home package and the BFI has presented us with a three disc pack, one Blu for the film and the trailer and a Coil video and two DVDs featuring a number of interesting documentaries.
‘Whoever Says The Truth Shall Die’ fills us in on the life, both in the creative world and outside of Pasolini and is a very good Cliff Notes summation of his work. The genius is that it makes you want to write down the names of all his works and all who comment on them and go out and fill you bookcase, just like all the best docs. ‘Walking With Pasolini’ looks at writers/filmmakers who have taken influence from PPP and brought them into the realm of modern cinema. Talking of modern cinema, one of the best of today’s critics Mark Kermode presents Fade To Black, a riveting look at how Salo has kept its power. ‘Open Your Eyes!’ sees Pasolini on the set of Salo, showing the way that his actors did not even know what was coming as each day of filming started and so some of the reactions to the horrors are genuine. There’s also a short film about Pasolini featuring Derek Jarman, Coil’s 1986 track ‘Ostia’ and a 32 page booklet with reviews, pictures and a letter from James Ferman of the BBFC in defence of Pasolini’s work, the first time I have ever felt in the same corner as the former censor of all censors.
These extras are excellent in showing you how Pasolini got to Salo and give you some idea of howa man was brave enough to adapt a De Sade novel on the big screen. Salo might not be something to watch for entertainment, hell there are moments where you will feel like you have been hit with an intellectual/literal hammer, but as an important piece of Italian cinema, it is as sparse and shrieking as it was in the mid seventies.