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Pasolini's updating of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom to Mussolini's short-lived Fascist republic of Salò in 1944 is one of the most harrowing and controversial films ever made.
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As harrowing a work of art as was ever produced — we cannot caution audiences too strongly about its unflinching depictions of humiliation and torture — Salò was the last film of Pier Paolo Pasolini. (Several critics have seen it as a foreshadowing of or preparation for his own violent end, an interpretation vehemently rejected by others.) Updating the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom to the Fascist republic of Salò in 1944, the film focuses on four powerful men (a banker, a duke, a judge and a monsignor) who retire to a chateau to "satisfy their penchants for lust, cruelty and power" by assembling sixteen young victims and reducing them to "things" in rituals of degradation. Pasolini incorporates the Sadean tale in a structure derived from Dante, a sort of mystery play presided over by four "bitch narrators." At the time of the film's release, Roland Barthes wrote that Salò "prevents us from redeeming ourselves," but the horrors which have occurred around the world since the film's making only confirm its continuing importance as a visionary testament. While some call it "unspeakable" (Vincent Canby, The New York Times), most would agree with Jonathan Rosenbaum's more balanced appraisal: "It's certainly the film in which Pasolini's protest against the modern world finds its most extreme and anguished expression. Very hard to take, but in its own way an essential work."