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Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom



Caligula was known for being a particularly cruel emperor during the Roman Empire. He was unpredictable and would subject people to unusually sadistic punishment whenever he so pleased. We like to think of those times as being far behind us, that something like that could never occur in modern times.

This movie shows that the spirit of Caligula living on in other ways. All throughout there is a bleak and pessimistic tone. All of the victims have no way of escaping (and those who try get captured or shot right away), the rules constantly change and contradict themselves no matter how much they try to comply, and at the end if the day you are just a puppet. Simply there to abide and subject yourself to these captors' sadistic desires.

We see only brief glimpses of these teenage captives sharing a smile or two, and finding a little comfort in each other. In one scene two of them forced into a marriage, having to showcase their "wedding night" in front of a crowd try to enjoy it the best they can. But since even a little bit of genuine intimacy is forbidden, they get interrupted and violated. That small bit of free will, however insignificant, taken away once again.

As the story progresses the punishments only get worse and worse in nature. The girl being reminded of her mother's death and instead of having people console her only getting humiliated more by having to eat someone's shít is the most heartbreaking and disturbing scene in the entire film. It's actually less gross than the dinner scene later on where everybody gets served the same kind of meal, but the sheer nonchalance and downright pleasure the man get from making this girl's grief worse demonstrates the total lack of humanity this place shows. How can you soften a heart that gets off on people crying their absolute guts out?

Throughout we also have Signora Vaccari telling erotic stories. Though to call them erotic is almost insulting to actual eroticism, since most of them are either weird, gross, creepy or all three. Of all the leaders she is the least involved in the rituals themselves, but it's evident she gets a sick pleasure out of them as well, and sometimes even inspires the others to come up with new ones. We get a little bit of backstory from her, which only serves to make her character more unsettling. Her mother is the only one who seemed to show some concern for her wellbeing, which Vaccari responded to by brutally murdering her. If that doesn't tell you what a cold heart this woman is, I don't know what will.

The final punishments we get to see are torture-related. Tongues getting cut off, parts of the body getting burned, someone having one of their eyes gouged out... all while being subjected to more sexual humiliation at the same time.

There is a political undercurrent underneath all the shocking content, with dialogue touching on philosophical ideas of fascism and anarchy. I've got to admit some of the message might have gone over my head, but given the director's constant struggle with authorities and the horrible fate he suffered after the movie was finished, I get the feeling all glimmer of hope he had for a happier world had all but vanished. Cruelty is rewarded, and the victims' screams become muffled as their voices are never heard. One of the captors asks the other if he doesn't feel any empathy for the homeless or poor who barely have enough money or resources to get by. His answer? That it doesn't matter what they're going through as long as he can enjoy his own lot in life.

By the end, there are no emerging heroes, no victory, no defeat and no remaining hope. Surprisingly however the last scene is a quieter and less harrowing moment. Two boys are standing guard by a window. One of them puts on some music. They put down their weapons on the floor and start dancing. Despite all the pain and misery they've been through, they are suddenly present in the moment. Suddenly at peace, as if they've been cleansed of all the trauma and worrying. That dance is probably the last bit of happiness they will share.