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Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Italy Month: Salò, or 120 Minutes of Squirming

I wholeheartedly and sincerely mean it when I say please don't read on if you are of a nervous disposition.
Seriously, no jokes for once.
Ok, maybe one joke.
Week 2 in the moustache month and things are heating up. Genuinely, I'm getting warm under this thin layer of browny-ginger fur that's continuing to expand across my face at an alarmingly glacial rate. Another few years and I'll almost look like a full on amateur hobo.

Start small, think big...
The Italians, on the other hand, somehow manage to actually look good with a small animal's coat taped to their faces. As such we shall continue our commemoration of their stoic defiance in the face of bristly adversity and focus once again on a cinema classic from the home of homicidal plumbers and funny-speaking immigrants.

Meanwhile, the Russians look on in calm, albeit feigned, drunken disinterest.
Our film of choice today is not dissimilar in the basic wartime theme of last week's post, but is most definitely of a different league in terms of tone and, more importantly, target audience. Please, for the love of god, don't get Life is Beautiful mixed up with Pier Paolo Pasolini's controversial 1975 film Salò (or the 120 Days of Sodom). This is a film so notorious that it's voted one of TimeOut's top 5 most controversial films ever and is worryingly often wrongly attributed as the motive behind the director's murder shortly before the film's release. When a movie is so horrific that people believe the director was run over multiple times as a result of it, you know you're in for some serious shit.

His legacy lives on thanks to this helpfully accurate dramatisation.
A short note before we begin: I'll try my best to stay away from describing whatever horrors await us and focus more on the setting, the characters and how Pasolini crafts the tone of the film, seeing as most other reviews focus predominantly on the former. Also, just so you're aware of the gravity of my decision to watch this, I'm genuinely a little apprehensive. This is a film that even my dear brother is unwilling to watch and one that I've also put off experiencing for a long while now; something evident in the amount of time I'm taking to write this intro instead of clicking the play button. With that in mind, rum is both necessary and in abundance for the duration of the screening.

If I don't make it, you'll find me in the freezer with the two captains.
Right, it could just be the already crushing sense of dread I have watching this, but must they make everything worse by playing something akin to smooth jazz during the opening credits while a list of names of first the "Masters" then the "Victims" are displayed in plain black text on the pale screen. This is the single most uncomfortable use of contrapuntal (conflicting sounds, my dear stupid readers) music I've seen since Reservoir Dogs, and ain't nothing even happened yet.

If the next shot is of Samara climbing out of a well, I will haemorrhage.
The film is set in Fascist-occupied Italy where we're introduced to four powerful men: the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate and the President. I have a feeling there might be some kind of political critique at play here, but I can't quite put my finger on it... They've just agreed to marry each other's daughters and have now begun rounding up various men and women from around the surrounding area, evidently against their will, for some unknown diabolical purpose. Interestingly, hardly any of the men and women we see, obviously being treated like filth as they're displayed naked to the four men for choosing, show any sign of emotion in response to their plight. One boy even laughs when a soldier makes fun of another one of the men, and a girl smiles sheepishly at the four men as she's undressed for presentation.

Jack Dee was knocked back from auditions, that's how ambivalent they are.
This unsettling lack of emotion from the people we know, and whom are also likely aware, are about to suffer unthinkable atrocities serves to elevate the four men from a position of power to something even greater. In a time of conflict and anarchy they are the masters and these people are their play-things; their unrestricted power makes them gods, able to act out their every desire on people who have no choice but to bear the force of these twisted fantasies, their will crushed to the point that they can't even find the strength to cry.

You can achieve a similar effect by walking into any nearby bank.
Pasolini leaves no doubt in the mind of the audience as to his critique of the fascist regime through both the actions of the four men and some very scathing dialogue. You don't have to be an art critic to get the message when the President takes part in the rape of a victim during dinner before inviting the man doing the raping to have sex with him instead, almost comically presenting his backside to the man. That's blunt-force satire on par with going on Question Time and slapping each of the politicians in the face with a herring for a solid hour. As for the infamous scene later on in the film where the poor victims are forced by their leaders to eat mounds of steaming shit; I think that's a message we can all get behind.

"How's the meal, sir? Great! I'll get right on to cooking up another batch."
Despite heaps (sorry) of very obvious imagery, there's still something else floating (again, sorry) just beneath the surface. It's the mark of a solid (I have no regrets) director when you can show the audience everything they want, and in this case don't want, to see and yet still give the feeling that there's more there. Carefully aligned shots (some of which are purposefully skewed or at an unusual angle), sudden, unprovoked changes of mind in character's actions, unsettling music and jarring editing make for an uncomfortable experience which obviously compounds Pasolini's over-arching message whist also saying something more. There's a lot to find here than first meets the eye if you look close enough, just don't strain yourself too hard.

Poo jokes are always funny.
The structure of the film itself is unique enough to be worthy of note, taking the form of three acts each split into a standard rhythm; first, one of four prostitutes tells a story of her most debaucherous exploits to the whole group each morning, these tales are then used as the inspiration for the many depraved acts performed each day, usually all of a similar theme within that part of the movie. Each act also features a wedding of sorts, evidently meant to be another scathing remark by Pasolini who was famously anticlerical. This is most definitely a film by a person who has a lot to say and knows how to say it using the medium, but the whole thing still doesn't feel quite right...

Oh god, here it comes...
Distilled to its absolute essence, this is a film about the sadistic abuse of power by the Fascist regime (and, as Pasolini said himself, consumerist culture) in Italy under Mussolini's reign; it uses the idea of complete physical, emotional and sexual dominance over another as a metaphor for the control of the state over the people. The message is clear, poignant and hard hitting. But the film doesn't deserve the praise it often receives. Now, I'm always up for a good bit of nastyness in cinema, and I'll be the last person to ever say something can't be shown on film (freedom of speech and all that guff), but I do have a problem with the actions depicted here.

Yes, of course it's meant to evoke disgust and make you feel uncomfortable, and it does it very well.

Also much like visiting a bank.
But it's the previously mentioned lack of emotion from the entire cast which gets to me. Although it could be another allegory for the way in which society strips us of emotion and morality, it feels more to me like a simple lack of characterisation. There's very little character development throughout the the film, the four men experience neither doubt nor resistance from any external party for the entire run time and even the victims' character arcs can essentially be summed up as going from dejectedly disinterested to dead.

With no characterisation and no real emotional interaction between the cast (apart from one illicit affair with a servant, which occurs off screen, and an abrupt suicide), we're left with a group of people essentially carrying out the motions on screen. It feels like watching the visual representation of an angry avant garde philosophy major's essay on Fascist Italy; all of the thought and vivid opinions are presented with style and clarity, but there's no room for feelings, and it is most definitely a deal breaker in this case. Sure, it wasn't pleasant watching someone eat poo off the floor (which was actually chocolate and marmalade), but it would have been absolutely unbearable if we had got to know the victims and become more involved in their plight. Instead we're stuck in a strange middle ground between the masters and the victims, not really gaining perspective on the needs and motivations of either side and coming away from the whole experience neither shocked nor enlightened.

Poor show, Salò, poor show.

Moustache Rating

I apologise for associating you with this, Michael, but you're just so darn adorable.
The Paedo Moustache -
Creepy, unsettling and publicly abhorred for obvious reasons. Well nurtured, but often has large bare patches which ruin the whole thing while simultaneously making everyone feel even more weirded out.

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