"Salo," now at the K-B Cerberus 2, was the last film completed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was killed two years ago following a quarrel with a young man he had picked up. I can't recall deriving a moment's enjoyment from any of the Pasolini movies I'd seen before - "Accatone," "The Gospel According to St. Mattew," "Teorema" and "The Decameron," an unsightly selection from Boccaccio. On the contrary, Pasolini has always seemed one of the most unrewarding of famous modern filmmakers, cursed by a solemnly pedantic style and oppressively homoerotic temperament.
Nevertheless, "Salo" is the kind of swan song you'd prefer to see even your worst enemy spared. It's unlikely that the greatest director who ever lived could justify a movie adaptation of the Marquis de Sade's disgusting magnum opus, "The 120 Days of Sodom."
Pasolini never overcomes the fact that this material defies the willing suspension of disbelief with an obscene vengeance. It's not much consolation to encounter Sade's parade of outrages in an abbreviated form or from detached camera angles. You feel degraded watching representations of such vicious fantasies from any vantage point, and you can't help wondering how degraded the performers feel too, especially the young men and women cast as the pawns and victims of the four old libertines who demand the outrages.
Pasolini isn't oblivious to the problems, but there's nothing he can do to compensate for them short of avoiding "The 120 Days of Sodom" to begin with. He certainly doesn't possess enough style to finesse scenes of people being forced to dine on excrement or having their tongues severed, their genitals scorched or their eyes gouged out. Who does?
Nor can he cover his tracks by transforming Sade's depraved quartet into Italian fascists toward the close of World War II. The responsibility for conceiving and executing this picture cannot be shifted from Pasolini himself to his politicalbetes noires .
A number of literary and political historians have linked Sade's cruel, nihilistic visions to the practice of totalitarian dictatorships in the 20th, century, but Pasolini isn't even justifying his interest at this level. At most he seems to be striving earnestly for a faithful condensation of a classic, an approach that barely conceals as unhealthy fascination with the same obsessions that haunted Sade. When Pasolini ends the film with two boyish hirelings of the libertines behaving as it nothing extraordinary has been going on around them, one can't tell precisely what sort of irony was intended.