I’m grateful to professor Mary Patten for introducing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom last week at the Gene Siskel Film Center (it screened as part of her ongoing film-and-lecture series “Revolution in the Air”). Patten contextualized the movie in terms of European history and Pasolini’s career as a public intellectual, explaining how Salo built upon the pessimistic view of modern society he introduced in his essays. Not that this made the film any easier to watch—if anything, Salo feels even more despairing when you understand the motivation behind it. The scenes of torture represent the systematic dehumanization of the powerless by the powerful—ultimately it’s the systematic nature that gets to you rather than the torture itself. Pasolini’s artful compositions, which draw from centuries of European painting and frequently organize human figures in mathematical combinations, are purposely deprived of spontaneity; the dialogue, which references numerous philosophical texts, imposes yet another sense of order. Here is the hideous culmination of Western civilization, Pasolini dares to suggest. As Patten noted in her introduction, the film envisions a system so complete that the only way out of it is death.