Thursday, August 10, 2006

Oedipus Rex (1967)

Oedipus Rex (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967)
Italian Title: Edipo re

Oedipus Rex is arguably Pier Paolo Pasolini's most autobiographical film, as he admitted having a longing for his mother, and adversity against his father. For those who take the psychoanalytic theory creatively named after the Greek tragedy seriously, the film may very well be as biographical to them as it was for Pasolini. The film is a straightforward adaptation of Sophocles' play, with a few added Pasolini touches for creative and artistic sake. Gone are the traditionally Greek-inspired costumes, replaced by African masks, less boisterous props, and a setting where the sun bakes the land unforgivingly. Pasolini's curiosity for cultural diversity and anthropological detail would not have reached its heights until Medea (1969).

Franco Citti plays the Greek tragic figure, who was ordered killed by his blue-blooded parents in the fear of the prophecy of the son killing his parents coming true. However, the baby survives and is adopted by the king of Corinth until he turns into an adult, and is hounded by a recurring dream for which he would try to seek answers from the Oracle. The Oracle basically repeats the prophecy: that he will kill his father and he will make love with his mother.

Curiously, Pasolini bookends the adaptation of Sophocles' play with a prologue and an epilogue that is set in contemporary times. The prologue is basically a staging, or more accurately, a filming of the psychological concept in action: a young boy's adversity towards his father, a military officer, for taking his mother away and stealing his mother's affections from him. The prologue hasn't anything much to say. The filmmaking is standard Pasolini, straightforward and sometimes lingering to idle poetry. Yet, it doesn't work until the film shifts to primitive times, where emotions aren't dressed and protected with modern ideas of propriety and ethics.

The Oedipus Pasolini presents is no Greek hero, but more of a cheat, a primal specimen of the naked id. Once aware of the prophecy, it is the id which gains control (although, it always seems to be that case, the competitive Oedipus cheats in discus-throwing and makes a dastardly effort to prove himself). The highest point of Pasolini's psychotic Oedipus is when his pride was damaged by a traveling king (his father, but he doesn't know that yet). Like a coward, he runs to save his skin, but a mysterious force keeps on urging him to stop and fight it out, until finally, he reaches to his father's throat and slits it. Pasolini's filmmaking here is intense. He shoots against the light, with the swordfights usually blanketed by the sun's glare, an imagery gesturing a heated and uncontrolled impulse.

Oedipus' biological mother is played by Silvana Mangano, who is a welcome presence against Citti's lack of middle range in acting (he either screams and shrieks in anger or is comatose in unlively scenes). Mangano's Jocasta is regal, seductive, controlled, beautiful yet unmaternal. As a mother, she is uncaring and almost negligible but as a lover, she reminds me of a playful and less conniving Lady Macbeth. The incest is played matter-of-factly, I have this impression that Pasolini's talent is portraying sex as a fact of life, its emotional or moral implications furthered by what the audience knows of its backgrounds. Here, the sex is primitive, with Oedipus switching from son to lover in uneasy gestures and variations of kissing, finally withdrawing to the wishes of the id, to make love.

The film ends with the character of Oedipus being transported into contemporary times, blind and guided by a young boy. He plays his flute underneath two imposing figures: a Catholic cathedral, and then, an industrial factory. This might be Pasolini's Marxist philosophies at work - a push against faith, and a push forward to the everyman. I really don't know, as the film's ending is far too opaque for deliberation, and symbolisms like these are far too obvious and blatant that it will belittle my little liking of Pasolini's adaptation of Oedipus Rex.


Anonymous said...

My understanding before I saw the film and my impression when I did see it was that the actors were actually engaged in sex.

katia said...

”Oedipus Rex” (1967) – Knowledge without Explanation Is Directed Against Those Who Need It the Most

Authoritarian Truths of the Fathers and Gods As Patriarchal Weapon to Keep the New Generations Under Control

“Oedipus Rex” examines the relationships between the young generations and systems of power at various periods of Western history. Taking the tragedy by Sophocles as a semantic skeleton of his film, Pasolini adds to the Greek play historical perspective – he assembles the scenes that took place in Ancient Greece, life during fascist period in Italy, and what happens to Oedipus during the post-WW2 Italian “economic miracle”. Pasolini emphasizes the historical universality of Oedipus’ predicaments. By doing this incredible semantic/stylistic equilibristic, Pasolini returns science-fictional paradigm of time-travel from being part of the content of art to where it belongs – to its form. From the epoch of Italian fascism the hero is “transferred” by the director to Ancient Greece and from there to Italian democratic post-modernity.
Pasolini dedicates the film to the analysis of how the youth in different epochs relates to the truth about societal life (how much or how little young people are able to understand how the system functions and how they are mistreated at the hands of the elder generations), and with what tricks and tactics the systems of domination make it impossible for the young to understand what life is really about. Through particular images and twists of the plot Pasolini enumerates five strategies of distorting truth by the system which makes it impossible for the youth to reach rational understanding of the social reality.
Truth without explanation and prediction without validation – the dogmatic (authoritarian) truths of the ancient oracles and prophets and today’s conservative propagandists alike explain reality through the expecting/forecasting crimes of victims of socio-political system, not through the crimes of those who rule over life. Oedipus is transformed into a criminal not only because he was abused by the hate of his father and not protected against this hate by his mother but also because how his predicaments were formulated by the system. According to Pasolini, condemnation of Oedipus by gods/destiny is the equivalent of being sacrificed by the system that understands crime as a personal transgression of Laws and taboos – not as internalization of system’s values of rivalry, competition, fight, greed, megalomania and belligerency.
Pasolini operates with different types of images depicting human reactions – for example, images registering human reaction as that of people’s psychological wholeness, not just reaction on the circumstances, or images with symbolic connotations making them archetypal, like that of Oedipus biting the back of his hand (his palm-his destiny) when he feels trapped in it. Pasolini has a unique ability to root ideas in stylistic configurations and effects.
“Oedipus Rex” is stylistically and intellectually like a unique organism – there is no other film in the history of cinema (including Pasolini’s other ones) like this.

Victor Enyutin