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The film focuses on four wealthy, corrupt Italian libertines in the time of the fascist Republic of Salò (1943–1945). The libertines kidnap 18 teenagers and subject them to four months of extreme violence, sadism, and sexual and psychological torture. The film explores themes of political corruption, consumerism, authoritarianism, nihilism, morality, capitalism, totalitarianism, sadism, sexuality, and fascism. The story is in four segments, inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy: the Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit, and the Circle of Blood. The film also contains frequent references to and several discussions of Friedrich Nietzsche's 1887 book On the Genealogy of Morality, Ezra Pound's poem The Cantos, and Marcel Proust's novel sequence In Search of Lost Time.
Premiering at the Paris Film Festival on 23 November 1975, the film had a brief theatrical run in Italy before being banned in January 1976, and was released in the United States the following year on 3 October 1977. Because it depicts youths subjected to graphic violence, torture, sexual abuse, and murder, the film was controversial upon its release and has remained banned in many countries.