Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967
Starring: Silvana Mangano, Franco Citti, Alida Valli, Carmelo Bene, Julian Beck, Luciano Bartoli
Pasolini’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex follows a young couple in Italy in the years before the war. They have a child, but the husband is jealous and has a servant take the baby boy to the desert to kill him. Unable to go through with the task, the boy is abandoned in the brush. The film transitions to an ancient, mythic time, where the baby is found in Corinth and adopted by the joyous King Polybus and his wife, Queen Merope. They name him Oedipus and he grows into an energetic young man. After a playmate taunts him about his parentage, he goes to the oracle of Apollo and learns there’s a prophecy saying he will kill his father and marry his mother. Dejected and miserable, he refuses to go home, setting in motion a chain of tragic events.
A bridge between The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Pasolini’s later films like The Decameron, Oedipus Rex is marked by a dramatic visual sense and use of color that would continue throughout the second half of Pasolini’s career. It also provides an interesting precursor to Salò, as the film is consumed with anger about the actions of previous generations, those that began WWII. Like many of Pasolini’s works, this can be seen as a meditation on the effects of WWII and the postwar world. The film’s opening takes place in modern day — the 1920s — with Oedipus’s father, Laius, garbed in military uniform, the kind worn by men who would soon before part of the fascist movement.
This choice belies one of the film’s deeper themes: Pasolini’s investigation of his own complicated relationship with his mother and his father. While he had a very close relationship with his mother, who he lived with for his entire life and who was even cast as Jesus’s mother in The Gospel According to St. Matthew. His father, on the other hand, was an Italian soldier not unlike Laius. With a gambling problem and an arrest record, he was in and out of the young Pasolini’s life and ultimately abandoned his son. Anxiety about fathers being usurped by their sons is a common theme in Greek myth. For example one of the founding myths is that Zeus, the father of the gods, rises up against his own father, the Titan Cronus, who has consumed all his children and imprisoned them within his stomach.
Crimes against the family are also often at the heart of Greek tragic myths — Zeus’s murder of his father is only heroic because the foundation myth is about the gods overthrowing the Titans, while the story of Orestes (who murdered his mother after she murdered his father after he murdered their daughter) is perhaps the most famous of the Greek tragedies. These crimes against blood are directly related to a concept of plague and miasma that follows an offense against the gods, where a lands animals and humans suffer and die, disease spreads, and wells dry up. With this element, Pasolini both references postwar turmoil and gives a nod to his earlier, more fervent Marxism with the citizens’ plea for Oedipus to solve their plight — with the high priest character played by Pasolini himself.
Many of these myths are initially caused by one character’s hubris, excellent conveyed by Franco Citti who had a similar role in Pasolini’s first film, Accattone. While the Greek gods are always punishing people for excessive pride and hubris, Pasolini also captures how maddeningly cynical this is. Oedipus only leaves home because of the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother — mistakenly believing that Polybus (an endearing Ahmed Belhachmi) and Merope (a beautiful, pre-Suspiria Alida Valli) are his biological parents — but it is this exodus that causes him to accidentally kill his father Laius (Luciano Bartoli) and set in motion a chain of events. Like so many tragic tales, this irritatingly boils down to a failure of communication — the events arguably could have been avoided if Oedipus went home and had a talk with his adopted parents — but Oedipus Rex captures a profounder sense of damning irony and nihilistic fate.
Oedipus Rex is essentially one of Pasolini’s more neglected masterpieces. It captures a sense of awe and wonder, while also effectively being a neorealist sword and sandal film. The Moroccan setting is almost a character in and of itself, while Pasolini captures spectacular performances from some professional actors (including the enigmatic Silvana Mangano in one of her best roles despite a disturbing lack of eyebrows) and nonprofessionals alike. There is dreamlike, surreal sense thanks to the costumes and nonsequitors and Pasolini finds a perfect balance between stark intellectualism and a certain comic campiness that doesn’t take away from the film’s impact but perhaps contributes to it.
The film comes highly recommended, though you should pick up the UK Masters of Cinema DVD/Blu-ray over the US-friendly Water Bearer Films’ DVD. It makes a fascinating double feature with either The Gospel According to St. Anthony or the later, similarly-themed Medea. It is worthy of far more acclaim and should be counted among Pasolini’s masterpieces.