Salo: 120 Days of Sodom - Contentious, Complicated and Cut? (DVD/ Blu-Ray Comparison)

America, your DVD and blu-ray copies of Salo: 120 Days of Sodom are cut!!  ...Well, arguably. The original 1998 Criterion DVD of Pier Pasolini's infamous Salo was one of the earliest DVDs to go quickly out of print and start going for really big bucks on the collectors' market. So much so that there became various bootlegs of it, and even they went up in value, among fans who knew them to be bootlegs! The fervor died down when the film was not only reissued on DVD in another region in 2001, but especially so when it turned out that foreign disc, from the BFI in the UK, was a little bit longer, including a scene missing from Criterion's DVD. Suddenly that was the one for the really plugged in film lovers to own. And so when Criterion remastered and issued their new DVD version in 2008, followed by a blu-ray version of that in 2011, I was surprised and disappointed that they were still missing that scene. Fortunately, BFI had already released their own blu-ray, so I guessed that was the definitive version and picked it up. But was I right?
I mean, this is assuming Salo's even a film you would want to own in any variant. As an adaptation of Marquis de Sade's infamous despite being incomplete novel, 120 Days of Sodom, it's surprisingly faithful. Pasolini's film version has been famously transposed to the period of Mussolini's rule in Salo, Italy (hence the addition to the title) as a commentary on fascism. Briefly, it's about a small group of male aristocracy and their madams who bring a collection of kidnapped teenagers to an isolated mansion to have a months-long orgy, where they explore the ultimate extremes of decadence. I'd always sort of assumed it was very loosely based on the novel, repurposing the general premise to tackle Pasolini's take on the Nazi regime and the more general, human psychology that would allow fascism to rise in any general situation. And that layer's certainly in there; but when I looked into the original writings, I was surprised to see how much this is really a faithful retelling, allowing for the usual shorthand and alterations any filmmaker tends to make when creating a cinematic translation, of what was already on the page, just updated to a new setting and time. Of course characters and details have changed, things were left out, etc; but I think it's interesting, because I've always found the basic "this is a film that shows you why fascism is bad" to be very minimizing, and the arguments both for and against respecting de Sade's work apply fairly equally to the film.
So okay, let's assume now that you do value this cinematic work. I'm not saying necessarily that you should, although there's certainly some undeniable attractive cinematography on hand - which, by the way, could probably be equated to the skillfulness of de Sade's descriptive prose, with the same role in the arguments for preserving his writings - so I'd say it really can't be completely dismissed as a work of art with value. But for the sake of this discussion, you think it's a compelling drama, worth having as the director intended. So you want the longer version that's not missing his scene, right?
The scene in question.
It's actually a fairly short scene, and considering how infamously shocking Salo is in terms of sex, violence and sexual violence, it's surprisingly tame. After the forced wedding (a bit of blasphemy that was probably more meaningful to de Sade than Pasolini), one of the men reads a brief poetry to the guests on a stairway, one of a couple scenes where similar poetry are read. It certainly wasn't removed by censors. And it's been argued that perhaps Pasolini didn't want it in his final cut at all, which is presumably why Criterion didn't reinstate it for their reissue. We'll never really know, because Pasolini was killed while he was working on his final cut. The film had already screened publicly in different international markets, but he'd said the version he was preparing was to be his definitive version. Just before writing this post, I read an argument against the scene's inclusion, basically boiling down to the fact that there's no clear evidence Pasolini wanted it in the film (apart from the fact that he filmed it in the first place), and if he had, it would've been in the version master Criterion had. But it seems like you could make the same exact argument for the opposite: there's no clear evidence Pasolini that he wanted it out of the film, and if he had, it wouldn't've been in the print the British Film Institute has.

So for me, it boils down to this: first, it's a good scene. It's brief, certainly not essential to the plot... but then very little in this film is. It's more a succession of events leading to a forgone conclusion, a character study of multiple characters that can be broadened out a study of human nature at large, rather than an intricate story of plot turns and exposition. And this is just one more layer, an extra turn of the screw. I really don't feel it hurts the pacing of the film, and I've never heard anyone argue that it should be left out because it was of sub-par quality. So, even though there's a risk of it being excess, and beyond the scope of Pasolini's preferred cut... since we'll never know, I'd rather have it in there as a more complete work. And if nothing else, it's an important piece of Salo's history now, so Criterion should've at least included it as a deleted scene, if not use branching to allow us to choose whether to watch it with or without the scene. Surely, nobody's best answer for how to deal with this scene would be to completely leave it out like it never existed.

Of course, there are plenty of other factors to consider when looking at the competing releases of this film.
BFI's 2001 DVD on top; their 2008 blu-ray second,
their 2008 DVD third and Criterion's 2011 blu-ray on bottom.
We start with BFI's old DVD (I haven't got the original Criterion DVD, because like I said, it was going for hundreds of dollars), which is soft, crushed, and non-anamorphic, as was Criterion's old DVD. I think it's fair to use the word "revelation" when describing the BFI's new HD master, taken from the original 35mm film elements. There's so much more detail and clarity. But scroll back up to that shot I posted of the scene missing from Criterion's releases. That's also taken from the 2008 blu, but it looks a bit different, flatter. That's because it's taken from a print - the same print that was used for the entirety of their 2001 DVD. So it's not a perfect match, but it's pretty close; and most viewers probably wouldn't notice the shift in quality if they weren't looking out for it.

But as huge of an improvement as it was, BFI's blu is far from perfect. There's some edge enhancement or unsharpen mask used on their version that gives it a dodgy, digital look. Criterion's blu, which is a fresher 2k scan of a 35mm interpositive, is a more natural improvement on that. It's still not perfect - are scans from Italian labs ever? - with some of that edge/ unsharpening effect still present, but it does seem a little milder, and its warmer color timing is a little more pleasing, too. Is it a big enough improvement to make it worth double-dipping if you already have the BFI blu? Does it make worth picking a cut of the film missing the mysterious scene? You'll have to make that call for yourself, but all things being equal, I'd say the Criterion has the best PQ, with both blu-rays being leagues ahead of the old DVDs.

BFI's set is also a combo-pack, by the way. So the second shot in the comparison sets is the standard def version of the 2008's blu-ray transfer. Naturally, it mirrors the blu but splotchier and a little softer. It's also worth noting that BFI's 2008 release, on both their DVD and blu, give you the option to play either the English or Italian version. This not only determines which audio track you hear, but plays an alternate set of opening credits written in whichever language you've selected. Criterion only includes the Italian version of the opening credits. Both discs offer excellent, mono audio tracks in both languages with optional English subtitles, with slightly different translations.
Oh boy, and the extras just complicate things further. None of the old DVDs have any, so that's simple enough, but the dueling blu-rays have a lot of different extras, with some overlap:
  • Ostia: The Death of Pasolini - A music video by a band called Coil, the only extra, besides the trailer, in HD in the BFI set, as everything else is on the bonus DVD, not the blu-ray.
  • Open Your Eyes - A vintage 21+ minute featurette full of on-set footage from the filming of Salo. Fans are gonna want this for sure.
  • Walking With Pasolini - Another 21+ minute featurette, where several experts, including Noam Chomsky, talk about Pasolini and his work.
  • Ostia - A short film from 1988 dramatizing Pasolini's death.
  • Ostia commentary - A commentary track on the short film by its director.
  • Whoever Tells the Truth Shall Die - A fairly well known, roughly hour long documentary on Pasolini and is work from 1981. It's previously been released as its own DVD, where it actually has an audio commentary.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Booklet - I mean, they're different, but both have substantial booklets.
  • Fade to Black - A 23+ minute featurette where filmmaker Mark Kermode talks about Pasolini's work and murder, with multiple interviews including Catherine Breillat and Bernardo Bertolucci.
  • Salo: Yesterday and Today - Kind of Criterion's version of Open Your Eyes, as it's a vintage doc with old interviews and on-set footage from the filming of Salo.
  • The End of Salo - An excellent 40 minute featurette on Salo comprised of interviews with the cast and crew, including uncredited writer Pupi Avati, on the making of the film.
  • Interview with Dante Ferretti - 11+ minutes with Salo's production designer.
  • Interview with Jean-Pierre Gorin - Over 27 minutes with one one of Pasolini's filmmaking peers from the 70s.
[red = BFI, blue = Criterion, purple = on both]
It's tough to say which set of extras is preferable. BFI has a little more, but some of it's oddball (like the music video) or in the case of Whoever Tells the Truth, previously available elsewhere. And since the separate release has its own commentary, you may still feel the need to pick up that disc anyway. Criterion has a lot of nice, new content and tends to focus a little more on Salo than just Pasolini in general. There's enough unique material to compel many collectors to get both releases, I'm sure; but there's overlap in doing that - not just in the fact that they both have Fade To Black, but some of the archival content gets redundant as well. Overall, BFI's set is more of a collection of interesting, pre-existing film that relates to Salo, whereas Criterion's is more like a fresh extras package created for Salo. So which of those two is more satisfying will probably come down to personal taste. Purists might fan the pre-existing films more legitimate, others will find Criterion's direct interviews more engaging. There are no easy choices with this flick, which I suppose is fitting.
In the end, both Salo blu-rays are pretty great, and clearly warrant upgrading from any of those old DVDs you might have. But both are also imperfect and rather unique. There's no definitive release here. I've laid it all out now so you can decide which release is for you... assuming this in many ways offensive and distasteful film is for you at all. We're talking about the actual Marquis de Sade, after all! But if it is, and you're the type of person to sometimes buy more than one edition of the same film, this might be one of those times.

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