Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom
The notorious final film from Pier Paolo Pasolini, Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom has been called nauseating, shocking, depraved, pornographic . . . It’s also a masterpiece. The controversial poet, novelist, and filmmaker’s transposition of the Marquis de Sade’s eighteenth-century opus of torture and degradation to Fascist Italy in 1944 remains one of the most passionately debated films of all time, a thought-provoking inquiry into the political, social, and sexual dynamics that define the world we live in.
Previously released by Criterion, Salo was one of their first titles to go out of print quickly becoming one of the rarest DVDs out there. The release would go for ridiculous amounts of money on auction sites (rumour suggests it once went for $1000, though the most I saw it go for was more in the range of $300) and many bootlegs showed up because of this.
While it had a sort of 'Holy Grail' of DVDs aura to it the DVD really wasn't very good. The transfer was quite bad, presenting a yellowish/greenish, damaged, interlaced blob of an image (find our screen grabs for the original release here, and find direct comparisons between the new and old Criterion releases at DVD Beaver,) lacked special features, and contained shoddy audio. I still feel it is Criterion's worst DVD (though after revisiting the W.C. Fields short films release I am somewhat reconsidering that stance.)
Now, almost nine years after pulling the original DVD Criterion has managed to reacquire the rights to Pasolini's Salo (from MGM now) and have more than made up for that awful DVD with this new two-disc set. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom is again presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, this time enhanced for widescreen televisions, on the first dual-layered disc. While I will try not to oversell it it's hard not to be excited about the transfer on this release since for the past nine years I've only seen the film on the older release. After throwing this in I was stunned when I saw the picture on this.
It literally shocks me how good this film could look, especially when I remember how awful it looked on the old DVD. Now progressive instead of interlaced the transfer gives a near-flawless image. Sharpness and detail is incredible. Where everything looks mushy on the last DVD, just about everything here has an incredible amount of detail. It's sharp and crisp. Colours also look absolutely stunning, the film now losing that yellow tint that dominated the last DVD, which made everything incredibly murky. The sky is no longer yellow but different shades of blue and skin tones look fantastic. Greens look natural, reds are very strong, blues actually become noticeable now; they all look wonderful!
The print is also in surprisingly great shape. There's still a bit of damage, but nowhere near the amount present on the old disc. A few large blobs/burns present at the beginning of the old DVD are now gone and the overall damage is minimal with a few specs and a few lines showing up here and there.
It's not their best looking video transfer ever (I still feel that of their recent releases Mishima and Before the Rain are better) but it's an amazing improvement over the original release, which obviously had next-to-no effort put into it. Now with this new transfer it is really like watching a completely different film.
(Note: As some know the previous region 2 BFI release included an extra 25-second sequence that appeared during the first wedding sequence where a poem is quoted. I've never seen the BFI disc but I can point out that this short bit is still missing from this new Criterion DVD and the cut looks to be exactly the same as the one that appeared on the old Criterion DVD. As of right now the old BFI is the only disc I know of that contains this extra sequence. EDIT: And I was just informed by one of our members that this scene was also available on a German DVD from Legend Home Entertainment.)
The old Criterion release presented a very weak (maybe highly compressed) mono track, which I could only call 'detached' from the film. It didn't help at all when viewing the film, especially when paired with the awful video. Thankfully Criterion has also improved the audio quite drastically with this release. This sounds completely different.
The Italian Dolby Digital mono track sounds excellent. The dialogue appears to have been re-recorded post-production so the lip movements don't always seem to match what is being said (also noticeable in the previous release,) but at least the dialogue now sounds more natural and no longer feels 'detached' from the film. Sound effects are also much more natural, and the music sounds absolutely sharp. I think just hearing the opening score will show how drastic the improvement is on this disc, the score sounding incredibly clean with great range.
Criterion has also included an English dub track that also sounds pretty good. The voices also sound natural and fit in with the film, though the lip-synching is even worse, naturally.
I prefer the Italian track but really both tracks are very good so it will come down to preference. Interestingly you cannot switch between the two tracks using your remote while playing the movie, you can only do it through the menu. I'm actually not sure why this is the case.
The previous release included nothing in the way of supplements other than an essay by John Powers (which is missing from this release.) Criterion now gives us a two-disc special edition, though it's not the lavish edition I would have hoped for.
Unfortunately no commentary has been recorded. If a film ever called for one (or a few) it is Salo, as a scene-by-scene analysis or general discussion during the film would be more than welcome. But Criterion tries to make up for the lack of this with the other supplements.
The first disc contains one loan supplement, an English-dubbed theatrical trailer presented in anamorphic widescreen. I always wanted to see a trailer for this film and here it is, not holding back at all.
The remainder of the supplements are then found on the second dual-layered disc.
'Salo': Yesterday and Today is a 33-minute documentary on the film and Pasolini. It appears to have been made for French television and is presented in 1.33:1. The feature starts with black and white behind-the-scenes footage of Pasolini shooting the final segment. It then moves to an interview with Pasolini where he talks about the film, the inspiration for it, moving the novel to 1944 Italy, and its themes of power and how he wanted the film to reflect what he felt was going on at the time. Cast members give their experience, with Helene Surgere explaining that the attitude on set was actually relaxed, even 'jovial' and that she was shocked when she actually saw the film, having no idea they were making a film that 'awful.' There's even more information including a bit of info on the French dub (which featured Michel Piccoli) and even a bit on Passolini's murder. It's a fairly extensive feature, definitely worth looking at. The documentary is broken down into 6 chapters.
Fade to Black is a 23-minute UK documentary on the film, presented here in anamorphic widescreen. This one presents interviews with other filmmakers including Bernardo Bertolucci, Catherine Breillat, and John Maybury (and there's also another clip with Pasolini that looks to be from the same interview used in the previous feature, this time with Pasolini dubbed over by someone that really sounds like Adolfo Celi.) They somewhat reflect on first seeing the film (Bertolucci hated it on first viewing but it stuck with him.) They also offer their own analysis of the film, going over its themes of power, consumerism, sexuality, and even go over some of the symbolism found in the film. This, along with the next feature, offers some decent analysis of the film and Pasolini's work. This feature has also been broken down into 5 chapters.
The final documentary is The End of 'Salo', presented in 1.33:1 and running around 40-minutes. This one has a lot to digest, covering many aspects of the film and Pasolini's career. It presents interviews with a couple of cast members and members of the crew. It includes some interesting little trivia, such as when Paolo Bonacelli reveals what the feces was made of (chocolate and candied fruit) and how screenwriter Pupi Avati, who did help in writing the screenplay, still refuses to watch the film. There's a lot of discussion about what Pasolini was going for, some reflect on the film and the director, and again touch on the themes of the film. This also gets a little more into Pasolini's death, though isn't out to exploit it. Interestingly it presents some deleted stills from the final sequence (including a bit with what looks like an electric chair) presented in a fashion as how they probably were originally presented. These finished scenes are apparently lost forever. It also presents some dialogue that was originally supposed to appear at the end. Like the other documentaries it's pretty good on its own but I think all of them together give a decent overview of the film, though still not as good as a commentary. This documentary is broken down into 8 chapters.
The remaining disc supplements are two interviews. The first is an 11-minute interview with production designer Dante Ferretti (who also appears in the End of 'Salo' documentary) and he talks a bit about how he got into his career and working with Pasolini, first meeting him during the making of The Gospel According to St. Matthew. He goes over the look of Salo including his use of empty space and the colours of the film. The second interview is a 27-minute interview with director/scholar Jean-Pierre Gorin, recorded for Criterion in February of 2006 (sometimes I'm amazed at how long it takes for these releases to make it from inception to store shelves.) He explains for one to really understand Salo one has to really understand the 60's and he touches briefly on political filmmaking at the time. He also talks about the literary influences for the film and on Pasolini's intentions. His English can be hard to understand at times and I had to rewind and watch again every so often but it is a decent interview. Both interviews, presented in anamorphic widescreen, are worth watching. The first interview has no chapter stops but the Gorin interview has 5 chapters.
Yet another digipak, Criterion has also included an 80 page booklet with quite a few essays. An intro states that one essay wouldn't be enough so they have instead put together six essays from six different writers, including Neil Bartlett, Catherine Breillat, Naomi Greene, Sam Rohdie, Roberto Chiesi, and Gary Indiana. Each offer their impressions of the film or get into certain aspects of it, Indiana focusing primarily on the bibliography title card during the opening credits (also brought up by Gorin in his interview.) They're all very good reads and offer more analysis into the film. Closing off the booklet is an article by Gideon Bachmann called 'Pasolini and the Marquis de Sade', which first appeared in the 1975-76 issue of Sight and Sound and went to press before Pasolini's death. This article is sort of a diary by Bachmann covering his visit of the set of Salo during its production over a period of four days. It's an interesting piece, conveying the general attitude shared by the cast and crew, which was really no different than any other film, though some crew were pretty sure the film wouldn't make it past censors and Bachmann himself is somewhat amazed at how the cast seems so willing to go along with what is called upon them. This was my favourite section of the booklet because of the behind-the-scenes aspect of it, the look at Pasolini's techniques, plus there are more insights from the director himself as he talks to Bachmann about his intentions and ideas with the film.
And that closes the release. Obviously a big upgrade over the older no-frills edition, but I was disappointed there wasn't more about Pasolini, though The End of 'Salo' does skim a bit into his career (at least more than the other documentaries.) And yes I admit I would have liked more insight into Pasolini's death. His death is mentioned throughout the features but it is still skimmed over, interview members expressing their shock or how it changed their viewing of the film (Bertolucci states he found the film harder to watch the first time because of it as does Ferretti.) But I think the one thing I'm most disappointed with is, again, the lack of a commentary. I still think this film would greatly benefit from one. At least the documentaries and the booklet offer some decent insight into the film and do help one understand a little better what Pasolini was hoping to achieve with the it. Because of this everything on this release is worth going through.
Not the extensive release I hoped for but it's still excellent, the new transfer more than making up for anything else (it looks fantastic!) I can't recommend it as a blind buy as the film is, to say the least, not for everyone. But those familiar with the film and looking to own it, or those who own the previous Criterion release and were as disappointed with it as me, this release is a must. It's an excellent release, and a very impressive upgrade.