While the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival closed up shop a month or so ago, its new home, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, has continued on with the first batch of its year-round programming. Among the highlights has been “Essential Cinema,” a series focusing on “the 100 greatest films, like you’ve never see them before.” Beyond screening the films themselves, the Lightbox has welcomed – and will welcome – dozens of prominent guests onstage to introduce and discuss the chosen films. David Cronenberg, for example, was the series’ first guest as he introduced #89 on the list, his very own “Videodrome.”
This weekend, the series got down and dirty for a tribute to #47: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom.” Often regarded as one of the most shocking films of all time, who better to bring it to Toronto than “The Pope of Trash,” Mr. John Waters.
“A lot of the other one hundred are awful respectable,” Waters said on stage. “So I was immediately looking for something that could cause a little bit of trouble. And when I saw this I thought ‘wow, what else am I gonna pick besides that’? ‘True Grit’ just ain’t up my alley. And I think it actually is a good film and a beautiful film and an amazing film. Yes, it’s a shocker, but to me it was just a film I really remembered.”
From now on, a few hundred Torontonians will have Waters to thank for their own “Salò” memories. The 1975 film – in part based on Marquis de Sade’s book “The 120 Days of Sodom” – has been at one point banned in essentially every country in the world.
“We’re here tonight for a film that’s known for notoriously emptying out theaters in record time,” Waters said before the film began. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen tonight. I saw a movie this afternoon called ‘Buried’ and I think that would empty a movie before this will. Talk about something that is horrifying. It’s the worst date movie ever. Though this ain’t a great date movie either.”
Set in Fascist Italy in 1944, the story is in four segments loosely paralleled to Dante’s “Inferno”: the Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit, and the Circle of Blood. Within them is the story of four monstrous men of power – the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate, and the particularly creepy President – who kidnap eighteen beautiful teen-aged boys and girls (nine of each sex). With the help of four campy prostitutes, the men of power essentially begin an intensive regime of violent and sexual torture – perhaps most infamously by making the boys and girls eat a wide variety of feces.
“We’re here to celebrate Pier Paolo Pasolini and what he called his ‘flash of inspiration,'” Waters said. “He took took the Marquis de Sade’s ‘choreography of fascism,’ as he called it, and relocated it to Salo, a northern Italian town created in 1943 by Hitler for Mussolini… Could this film be made today? I don’t think so. Because they say that all the actors that play the teenagers that are kidnapped and abused were 14 to 18 years old. Which is highly illegal in any country in the world, really.”
Waters mused that Pasolini’s source had also been a great influence on his own life, getting him through his religious upbringing.
“The Marquis de Sade was very important to me growing up,” Waters said. “I went to Catholic school, and they told me if I just shut up I could read. So I read ‘The 120 Days of Sodom’ but they were so stupid they didn’t know what I was reading. And they would say, ‘isn’t it nice that John is reading?’ Grove Press really saved my life by putting that book out. It was originally banned by Napoleon. That’s how long this book has been causing trouble. It was smuggled out of jail when he wrote it on prison toilet paper. That sounds like something I would make up!”
Waters clearly also had quite a connection to Pasolini’s own work. “Pasolini defined himself as a communist, a Catholic and a homosexual,” he said. “So you knew he liked to push buttons. To me he’s like a Catholic Saint. He was murdered by a hustler named Pino the Frog right after he made this movie. And right before died he said that he detested power in today’s world more than anything. And at that time there was a neo-Nazi resurgence happening in Belgium. The actress in the film who plays one of the whores said in the commentary that Pasolini was more than an artist, he was somebody trying to live in his time with dignity. Well, you can tell me if you actually think he did after you see the movie.”
The audience certainly seemed to think so after the film, enthusiastically sticking around for a half hour discussion Waters had with TIFF Bell Lightbox Artistic Director Noah Cowan.