This hypnotic, fable-like interpretation of the well-known ancient Greek myth of Sophocles, directed by the Italian filmmaker, screenwriter and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, begins (somewhat unexpectedly given the source material) in 1920s Fascist Italy. We witness the birth of a child – but do so voyeuristically, peeking furtively between the shutters of a window from outside the pre-war Italian villa in which the event takes place, even though a milestone outside oddly indicates the location to be the Greek city of Thebes; meanwhile, the cinéma vérité-approximating handheld camera style, which quickly comes to dominate much of the movie’s approach, continues to simulate the unsteady gaze of an unseen ‘someone’s’ point-of-view. In later scenes during this prologue, we again take up a heavily pronounced and particularised point of view: this time that of the very child whose birth we previously witnessed. Dreamlike episodic vignettes of his pastoral upbringing and close relationship with his other-worldly but remotely beautiful schoolteacher mother follow (played by Silvana Mangano, who later brought her strange beguiling alien looks to David Lynch’s “Dune”), and are punctuated by written caption cards exposing the unconscious antipathy towards the infant that’s secretly being harboured by his young military officer father (Luciano Bartoli), who subconsciously sees the child as competition and a potential usurper of his wife’s love. The disturbing effect of this device is to create the illusion of the father’s uncharitable thoughts somehow penetrating the undeveloped consciousness of the helpless boy.
This affecting, poetic ten minute prelude to the main body of the film, with its strange languid shifts in point-of-view that would appear to indicate Pasolini’s narrative charting of a hazy nexus of associations which can be located at the mid-point that lies between half-buried memory and a fabulist’s dream life, has obvious relevance to the famous Greek tragedy – the story of a foundling who battles against fate and circumstance to assume kingship, yet is doomed to live out the prediction that’s already foretold from the start to end his reign in violence and shame – from which of course the movie takes its name; but even more so, it positions the work as a uniquely personal response to a universalist myth that has become, through Sigmund Freud’s appropriation of it, part of our collective understanding of our darker selves: Pasolini’s twin objectives (as quoted in the reprint of the 1969 interview included with the helpful booklet which comes with this Masters of Cinema release) lay in the attempt to create a mythologised autobiography of his own upbringing (Pasolini’s own father was a fascist army officer who married an elementary school teacher) and intertwine it with the ancient story, in a surreal manner which makes explicit the interior motives that drive the more explicit historical processes of conflict which had then recently resulted in two world wars.
This is why, then, after the father abandons his toddler son in the desert, the film’s period and location suddenly unaccountably shift to encompass an ahistorical land of an unspecified time -- outside of history in fact, as well as time -- existing only in a realm of legend borne on our unconscious. The central portion of the film relates a recognisable but heavily stylised and aestheticized version of the Sophocles story. The landscape in which it takes place is a flat, barren rocky desert in which the towering fortes and city battlements of Thebes and Corinth already look impossibly ancient and not all that Greek in origin either, for that matter. The familiar elements of the tale are presented as a febrile dream narrative, expressed in often heightened totemic imagery which comes to harbour a poetic kind of primitivism in its textures.
During this lengthy section of the film, a servant (Francesco Leonetti) abandons an infant (in fact, the same one seen in the 1920s prologue) to die amid the endless stretches of desert-ground and dusty roadways which lie outside the city state of Thebes. A wandering shepherd (Giandomenico Davoli) takes pity on the infant and delivers him to King Polybus (Ahmed Belhachmi) and his childless wife Merope (Alida Valli), rulers of the polis of Corinth, who enthusiastically adopt the boy as their heir, thinking him a gift from the gods; but they never tell him of his adoptee status, even as he grows into questioning adulthood. The scene then shifts to one of young Oedipus’s (who is played by Pasolini regular, Franco Citti) early manhood, and finds him tormented by unanswered questions and feelings of restlessness. Seeking to understand what might lie behind his unfathomable sense of unease the young man leaves the city and sets out alone on a pilgrimage to Delphi in order to consult the Oracle of Apollo …
Cinematographer Giuseppe Ruzzolini (“A Fistful of Dynamite”) brings a vivid intensity to these feverish-yet-bleak desert-set scenes, shot in Morocco; and the production design and art direction of Luigi Scaccianoce and Andrea Fantacci respectively are decked out with earthy coloured tribal trappings, enhanced by Danilo Donati’s (“Flash Gordon”) showily surreal costumes, which adopt a bizarre mix-and-match approach -- incorporating an odd assortment of African clay masks and offbeat armoured helmets that look almost science-fiction in their designs, while creating a vivid sense of the story’s great antiquity despite not conforming to any recognisable time period. Again, an African tribal element intrudes into the aesthetic design of the picture, especially in the sequence depicting Oedipus’s encounter with the Oracle -- who looks like a crouching native witch doctor in a grotesque mask, guzzling a paste-like peyote substance to induce his horrific visions. The incidental music used throughout consists of a sombre, hypnotic collection of Romanian folk tunes and traditional Japanese music, again, compounding the sense of a fictional, timeless antiquity.
The Oracle answers none of Oedipus’s questions, but informs him that he is fated to kill his father and sleep with his mother. The young man determines to thwart the prediction by refusing to return to Corinth, and he instead ventures out into the desert to wander, seemingly becoming more unhinged with each strange encounter and deciding on the direction his travels will take simply by closing his eyes and picking a route at random whenever he reaches a new crossroads. However -- as will be no surprise to any viewer -- Oedipus cannot avoid the path decided for him in advance by fate.
In some kinetically shot scenes which evoke violent intensity without actually depicting any violence as such in front of the camera, the young man encounters King Laius (Luciano Bartoli) and some of his guards on the road to Thebes, and slays them all during an altercation. He arrives in the city state to find it being terrorised by a mythological creature called the Sphinx (another grotesque-looking atavistic witch doctor manifestation which dwells on the edge of a mountainside) and tosses it into the abyss, thereby earning the right to take the city’s widow as his queen and rule the now-leaderless polis as its king. What he doesn’t know of course, is that the queen is his real mother and Laius, the king he murdered on the roadway, was his father -- who had him abandoned on the roadside as a baby because of a prediction that Oedipus would indeed one day end his rule. The rest of this section of the film involves Oedipus trying to understand the reason why a terrible plague starts to decimate the population of Thebes soon after he takes up his new role as king; why would the gods choose to punish the city in such a cruel way? He commissions a messenger to petition the Oracle for an answer, but he isn’t going to like what he hears, and neither will the rest of his family.
The story reaches its inevitable histrionic denouement with Oedipus stabbing out his own eyes and his mother/lover hanging herself in despair when the truth is revealed. At this point, Pasolini’s unique take on the tragedy flings us headlong back into a-wide-angle-lens-distorted version of the present day with Franco Citti’s blinded Oedipus now touting for pennies from tourists as a pipe player on the steps of the Basilica de San Petronio in Bologna.
What are we to make of this circular, dreamlike narrative which winds up with the adult Oedipus returning to die in the very field where, as an infant, he first suckled at the breast of his mother? The film seems to be an oblique comment on the director’s troubled relationship with his father and on the power of myths to endure even in a secular age. More particularly it might be said to function as an allegory for how individuals are defined and formed by the historical conditions they are born into, and the tragedy of being unable to escape certain kinds of fate which such conditions might proscribe for us whatever we do. The swapping about of periods seems to emphasise the timeless continuities of this situation and also the particularities relating to Pasolini’s own case. Anyway, the dreamy ambience and striking imagery continues to entrance today, just as it did in 1967, and does so all the more effectively thanks to this rather nice-looking but naturalistic HD transfer from Eureka Entertainment.
This is a dual-format edition, also containing a DVD copy. The only disc extra is a theatrical trailer but the accompanying booklet has lots of writings by Pier Paolo Pasolini himself about his thoughts on realism in cinema and other subjects; and carries an in-depth interview about the director’s approach to this film in particular, which was his follow-up to his account of the life of Jesus, “The Gospel According to Matthew” made three years before. “Oedipus Rex” was the director’s first film in colour; it looks as beguiling and strange as it ever has, and the expereince is even more intense in its enhanced HD incarnation. It is well worth exploring.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing But the Night!