Oedipus Rex (Italy, 1967) * * * *
D: Pier Paolo Pasolini
I was in Seattle, a grad student and feeling very alone (all of my friends were in Wisconsin or elsewhere), and beginning to watch a lot of movies--it helped that I lived down the street from Scarecrow Video, one of the finest video stores in the world, with a copy of nearly every film ever released on video. I saw a DVD of Arabian Nights, the back of the box had some striking imagery, and it was from the early 70's and rated NC-17, so I thought: why not? It was my introduction to two vast worlds that would be stamped upon my consciousness for at least the next seven years (so long it's been): the world of the Arabian Nights, which eventually led to taking a grad course in Orientalism that changed my life, and the world of Italian neorealist master Pier Paolo Pasolini. In a way, I suppose, I'd been prepared for Pasolini much earlier, being one of those many kids who'd discovered Monty Python and the Holy Grail and treated it with avid devotion; that film, directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, looks like a Pasolini film and plays like a Pasolini parody (Bresson, too, if you've seen Lancelot du Lac). The key word here is "grubby." Pasolini's films are intellectually rich but as dirty as a deep puddle of mud, which you can practically see smeared on the lens. I chalk this up to his devout Marxism, and firm alignment with the working class--somewhat hypocritical, as he was pretty much a member of the bourgeoise. I don't know that that's what attracted me to Pasolini; his political writings give me a headache. No, it was his "Trilogy of Life"--The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974)--visually arresting, shot like documentaries, and containing iconography culled from either classical art--Brueghel, Bosch--or more ancient and alien images. Most of all, they emphasized the power of storytelling, and played as simple, vulgar folk tales, the kind one person might tell another on a hot day by a dusty street in a small provincial marketplace. While he worked to de-romanticize the classics he was adapting (there are no magic lamps in his Arabian Nights), emphasizing the earthiness of the stories, the fundamental nature of his project was romantic. He envisioned himself a hero of the poor, and elevating their stories to the level of art. Often, as with his masterpiece The Decameron, he succeeded, although at other times (as with The Canterbury Tales), he fumbled in his brash experimentation. My love for Pasolini continued with The Gospel According to Saint Matthew--still the greatest film ever made from the Bible (did it help that Pasolini was an atheist?)--and even with Salo: or 120 Days of Sodom, one of the most harrowing films ever made about fascism, and a repudiation of his Trilogy of Life, but at the same time a further exploration of how elevated, intellectual thought can be realized on a visceral level (in this case of blood, sadomasochism, and feces). When I recently revisited Pasolini (viewing Mamma Roma and the short "La Ricotta") after indulging in my own private film course--Primer 500--I was still struck by the mixture of invention, humor, and emotion present in his work. Pasolini was not a natural filmmaker. He was a poet who believed that cinema could be an important tool in poetry, and he picked up the camera with an occasionally awkward hand. He cast non-professionals to fill out his cast, and while the result was sometimes worthwhile, at other times the anachronistic dubbing (usually by a more professional, theatrical actor) could be boggling. But Pasolini loved mismatched juxtapositions. The Gospel According to St. Matthew, while set in Jerusalem, featured traditional Afro-American gospel music on the soundtrack. It had no reason to work, but it was transporting.
Oedipus Rex I steered clear of for a long time, because, well, it's a famous incest story, and in Pasolini's hands I thought it could be dangerous. This is the man who'd made Salo, after all. Now that I've finally watched it, I regret waiting so long. Like the Trilogy of Life, it is shot in desolate landscapes with ancient, crumbling architecture that is convincing and awe-inspiring. It's Morocco we're seeing, and the music seems to have African tribal beats and agonized, wordless vocals, but the anachronism pays off here as it did in his other films. While the film maintains his neorealist's impulse for documentary-style realism (the camera, as ever, is handheld, and seldom looks for formal compositions), the Moroccan desert and the choice of music creates a purely psychological realm, more Jung than Freud, where the archetypes of the collective unconscious can act out their eternal tragedy. The costumes may be authentic (I assume so), but look as alien as those in Satyricon, which this film at time resembles--except that Pasolini never digresses and keeps a tight, miserly focus on the narrative. The cinematography is striking and colorful. There are only slight touches of surrealism, such as a sequence in the beginning of the second act, where we see diseased bodies lying prone in the desert and in the city, perfectly aligned with each other, but even this seems to evoke the exaggerated theater of Greek Tragedy, and these dead, semi-nude bodies might as well be our masked Chorus. Despite this, and a brief but memorable prologue and epilogue set, jarringly, in the twentieth century, the film is focused on the reality, not the fantasy, of the story--such that you can almost feel the sting of the desert rocks against the soles of your bare feet--even as the emotions are over-the-top tormented in the Greek tradition.
Pasolini is keenly interested in Oedipus Rex as a parable of the dangers of knowledge. It's not so much that Oedipus is fated to commit these accidental crimes. It's that he must be compelled to ask Tiresias what it is he will do, and, later, what it is he's done. I was reminded of the Oedipal moment in Zhang Yimou's excellent epic The Curse of the Golden Flower: long after the incest has been committed, the true relationship between the two lovers is revealed, and while the sister runs off screaming, the brother asks his stepmother: "Why did you tell me?" Here, Tiresias insists that everything would be fine if he weren't compelled to tell Oedipus the truth. There's even a moment when Oedipus' mother--who, of course, is now his wife--mentions that it can't be as bad as all that, for isn't it every son's secret wish to sleep with his mother? (It's the one moment of direct Freudianism in the film, and would seem to be a little too much if it didn't make her character so much more interesting. You get the idea that she regrets her actions not because of what they are, but because of how they affect her son, whom she dearly loves--possibly without conflict.) When Oedipus blinds himself, he is deliberately robbing himself of knowledge, becoming nothing but a dumb flute-player in the street; I almost wonder if Pasolini sees this as a repudiation of atheism for religion--a false comfort afforded against the empty, meaningless cosmos. But it's also the ultimate tragedy of the unconscious, the defeat of reason and rational thought, sabotaged by the body or the Id. Oedipus had been king, gained Corinth, and touched the heights of his potential, but in order to do so--however unwittingly--he had to perform the basest actions.
All of this is well known and famous; it's the most over-analyzed piece of storytelling in the history of civilization, with the possible exception of the Bible. It's Pasolini's prime accomplishment, then, that he makes Oedipus Rex fresh and essential. He gives it a reason to be filmed. I didn't think I needed to see this film, until I was watching it, and realized I'd never seen anything like it. Never mind that I knew the story backwards and forwards. To watch Pasolini's adaptation is to see a brilliantly primal production, as though the players emerged straight from those strange fire-pits below the desert sun, where we see the villagers dumping their dead. He understands the most essential element of retelling a Greek tragedy: these emotions and the crimes behind them will recur again and again, just as we see, at the beginning of the film, the modern father staring into the crib, envious and spiteful of the admiration stolen from his lover.