The Criterion Collection has been known to release some pretty shocking content from time to time, from the torturous 'Antichrist' from Lars Von Trier, to the severance in 'In the Realm of the Senses' by Nagisa Oshima to Martin Scorcese s depiction of Jesus in 'The Last Temptation of Christ.' Or the questionable sexuality in 'The Tin Drum' from Volker Schlondorff. Or the general atmosphere and truthfulness found in the excellent 'Night and Fog' by Alain Resnais.
The most notorious release from Criterion, though, is also the stuff of legend. Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s 'Salo' attained legendary status due to a combination of factors. One of the first DVD releases from the company back in 1998, graced with spine number 17, the disc quickly went out of print, with the actual print run being rumored to be around 2,000. This title became the holy grail of DVD collectors and Criterion completionists, and used to fetch some serious money for a real white ringed nimbus disc (known bootlegs even maintained strong pricing!). The other contributor to the legend of the Criterion release of Salo was the content of the film itself, content considered so vile that countries have banned the film outright. Those who dished out the six hundred dollar average for an authentic release at the height of its rarity were often the same ones selling the title on Ebay the very next week due to being unprepared for what they were about to witness.
Lets just get something out of the way, right here and now: 'Salo' is not a family friendly film. It is not an easy movie to watch. If you are easily outraged or disgusted, you may want to just move along to the next title on your rental or shopping list. Salo is one of the most unforgiving, unflinchingly brutal and perverse films ever made. It is beyond effective, a film whose story and purpose is amplified due to the strong reactions the visuals create. There is no way to watch this film and not have a reaction, one way or another, be it revulsion, or stimulating in an intellectual sense.
'Salo' is not pornographic, nor is it a film with no purpose or point, as some will adamantly attest to. While it definitely makes no friends with its bleak viewpoints, disturbing imagery, and remorseless sadism, there is a very intelligent, eye opening film beneath all the brown matter. This is a film that feels like a documentary rather than an analogy, going to such extremes that it opens the door for questions on how it ever got made in the first place. One could ask how a person could imagine such cruel circumstances, of course, if one weren’t aware the film were adapted from the writings of the Marquis de Sade, one of the most controversial writers in all of history.
Based in the Italian Social Republic, aka Salo, Pasolini adapts the 19th century writings to modern time, under fascist rule. Four powerful leaders unite in the Republic (including the Duke, the Magistrate, the Bishop and the President), and indulge their inner deviances. A group of teenagers are abducted, an equal split male and female, to become the playthings of those holding power over them. These youths are forced to perform unspeakable acts under fear of torture and death, as guards look on in a leering fashion. As the stay lengthens, the perversion and depravity amplifies, resulting in a deadly chain of events, all for the entertainment and amusement of those in charge.
The funny thing about 'Salo' is that, over thirty years later, the shock value of the feature has not diminished one iota. It can be argued that no film has come close to the extreme depictions found within; the mere comparison being a badge of honor for similarly shocking titles like 'A Serbian Film' to wear proudly. This is a film that may never be topped...not counting, of course, non-fictional recordings of similar actions. This may very well be the gold standard when it comes to extreme cinema, a feature film that grows and grows in its twisted nature, making the various shock internet sites of the last decade seem tame by comparison.
There is no disclaimer strong enough for this film. None. The depictions found within are among the most vile imaginable. This is torture porn before torture porn existed, though there is also a purpose behind it all.
It’s actually quite sad that the imagery found in the film gets more attention than the meaning. The none-too-veiled allegory to living under fascism and being but a disposable pawn is excellently manufactured and portrayed. The common class people being under the whims of those rich with power, what film has ever had a more believable depiction? The desensitization to violence and the willingness to even participate, the inescapable fates and ever broadening extremity, these themes are absolutely perfectly realized here. The casting is magnificent for those in power, with Aldo Valletti stealing almost every single scene he's in as the perverse President, a cross-eyed sodomite whose simplest looks can lead to revulsion due to the obvious intent in his mind.
Yes, 'Salo' is an absolutely shocking film. No, it most definitely is not for everyone, and is certainly not a film everyone has to see before they die. In fact, even completing the film can be a task akin to a reality show trial. Pasolini’s masterwork, his final film before his curious, bizarre death, 'Salo' is as relevant today as it was before, even if the setting may be changed. Call me crazy, but I really don’t see this film as that much of a stretch when viewed as an analogy. When unchecked, absolute power corrupts absolutely, the value of individual lives becomes meaningless, and the game that is maintaining and demonstrating dominance resembles the snowball that grows the size of a house as it rolls down the mountainside.
Readers, beware. If you dare enter, enter with an open mind, a puke bag or bucket, or the remote control nearby. Do not even bother if a certain viral video concerning girls and cups made you ill. 'Salo' makes that seem like a nursery rhyme. Keep an open mind if you have a curious eye, and look beyond what is shown to what is portrayed. This is an intelligent film if ever there were one. Also, coprophagia. Can you believe I went this long in the review without saying that word? Is it also ironic that salo is also the name of a European food?
The Disc: Vital Stats
Criterion brings 'Salo' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked BD50 disc (that is, get this, brown and yellow in color...), housed in their cardboard box type packaging used for films like 'Breathless' or 'Amarcord.' There's no pre-menu content, and the menu itself is an effective white screen with an ever adding scratch list designating days of absolute fun at the estate!
The language options on this disc, I wish they were more clear, as there is no up or down option, just the ability to press the enter button to change which is selected. So...I often found myself wondering exactly that: which was selected?! Worse still, on my Playstation 3 triangle button disc menu, audio and subtitle options could not be changed, as they had to go through the disc menu. What's all that malarky about?!
Good idea: picking up this Blu-ray based on the strength of the video. Bad idea: eating meatloaf when watching this film.
If you bought the BFI release from England, you're in for one hell of a surprise with this Blu-ray release from Criterion. There is no comparison: this is one of the best looking films from the arthouse company (save, of course, for modern films, which hardly count as they're expected to shine). Presented in 1080p, 'Salo' proves you can, indeed, polish a turd.
This disc isn't perfect, amazing as it may be. There are some very minor dirt blips that made their way past the restoration, while a few shots have a smattering of vertical lines and scratches, like the bridge escape scene early on. Colors sometimes are a bit muted, but are mostly very powerful, and there are a few shots mixed in with crush issues and a softer overall look. The booklet for this release also acknowledges DNR use, but it's not noticeable one iota.
Now that that's out of the way...wow! I've never seen a Blu-ray release from this particular era of film with such clean, powerful whites, great depth, or life-like textures, let alone all three at once! The wear and tear on the Italian buildings, the clarity of facial features, the finely defined hairs on faces and atop heads, its amazing! I'm hard pressed to come up with anything to proclaim about this disc, short of saying its a few soft shots short of looking like it were made yesterday! Even neater, the torture sequence at the end, the finale of the circle of blood, stands out, as I could never see the practical effects to these sequences on the DVD release of this film. Now, you can see the hair caps, the fake body suits, and the off texture of the pulled tongue. Amazing. Simply amazing. If you love this film, you have to buy this disc. If you imported it already...buy it again. This is a transfer that will leave many a jaw agape, and many more muttering "holy shit!"
The audio for 'Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom' is presented in two manners: the native Italian in a Linear PCM 1.0 track, or a funny English dub, merely in Dolby Digital 1.0. This disc may defy its age powerfully with its video, but the audio is hardly worthy of similar praise. It's just too damn weak and quiet. The score borders on anemic, gunfire has no pop, and some dialogue gets overpowered and muddled beneath the piano as tales are told. However, I do have to admit this disc does boast perfect dynamics, and is free from any whir or hum, its silence coming through with great power. It would be silly to expect this film to sound any better than this, so just keep your expectations low, and try to hear the film over your dry heaves.
This Criterion Collection release of 'Salo' is not the first Blu-ray of the film, as there are a couple of European imports, most notably the BFI two disc set released in the UK, which is Region B locked.
There is little common ground, in terms of extras, between these two editions. Fade to Black is the only one found on both, and the essay booklets also vary, despite both boasting very thick, very detailed notes. The UK release contains a music video for The Death of Pasolini by Coil, an Italian trailer (rather than the US version found in this set), a 21 minute doc called Open Your Eyes!, another 21 minute doc entitled Walking with Pasolini, a vintage one hour special entitled Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die, and a short film from 1987 entitled Ostia.
In terms of disc quality, the Criterion release wins, hands down. There's no comparison. The menu is classy and easier to navigate. The audio is cleaner, free from the random thumps and bumps. The video, though, is where the Criterion disc makes the BFI version its bitch. The BFI video often features frames that make hard shifts to either side, many more scenes with that scratchy effect, and a general lack of clarity. The few weak shots in the Criterion release look even worse here, and I may go as far as to say the weak shots in the USA release trump the strong shots in the UK release. It's dirtier, filled with random artifacts and abominable textures, facial hair that isn't sharp or clearly defined, amazingly flat, full of wonky skin tones, with shitty contrast levels to boot. Even worse still, the BFI edition also has horrible edge enhancement mucking up the already ugly as fuck picture, while subtitles are nowhere near as proper or accurate. Criterion's release has one or two small errors in the track (funereal rather than funeral), but the BFI's edition is just embarrassingly bad. Import owners, unless you're attached to the extras, sell it, immediately.
For those interested, the BFI release would score a 1.5 to 2.0 star score on our grading system, for video, and a 2.0 for audio.
If you like your films to have lessons learned at the end, or to have cuddly and cute talking animals...then you really need to step away from this review right now. Salo is one of the, if not the, most controversial films ever made, and it continues to push boundaries to this day. Is it intelligent and relevant, or just ridiculous and obscene? Can't it be both? The Marquis de Sade would be proud if hell had a screen playing this film on a loop, so he could partake in the excess that he once imagined.
'Salo' is the rare kind of film where you forget you're watching a work of fiction, where acting becomes so real it is indistinguishable from anything else. There's no arguing the power and perversion on display here, the well deserved controversy behind the film only making it that much more nasty. There are no words for this movie. None. No description suffices. Needless to say, my review most certainly won't prep viewers for the world they'll enter when they stick this disc in their player. What is to happen, it's not publishable here. After many viewings of this film, I can say it hasn't lost its effect. In fact, I can say, without a doubt, that 'Salo' is the shit.
Criterion's Blu-ray release of 'Salo' is absolutely gorgeous, and makes the BFI import look like a bucket full of excrement. With the twice yearly Criterion sale at Barnes & Noble, and the occasional Amazon.com price match, getting this title for as cheap as it can be had is a no brainer. The ability to finish the film, on the other hand, at all, let alone without vomiting, that's the challenge.