September 3, 1967 (Venice Film Festival) — 110 minutes, color, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Drama
Pasolini’s 5th feature, a dramatically and visually stunning adaptation of the Greek myth, with an intriguing prologue and epilogue set in modern times.
FILMS: Shorts and Documentaries | 1. Accattone | 2. Mamma Roma | 3. Gospel According to Saint Matthew | 4. Hawks and Sparrows | 5. Oedipus Rex | 6. Teorema | 7. Porcile | 8. Medea | 9. Decameron | 10. Canterbury Tales | 11. Arabian Nights | 12. Salo.
Oedipus Rex, filmed in the summer of 1967, is Pasolini’s opulent and riveting adaptation of the ancient myth of Oedipus, a man who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. Although Sophocles’ play, first performed about 429 B.C., forms the basis for the film’s second half, the film’s prologue is startlingly autobiographical. Pasolini opens the film in twentieth century Fascist Italy but uses the myth’s characters and actions to recreate his parents’ relationship and his own birth. Filmed primarily in Morocco, it is a visual tour de force of vast desert landscapes and stunning architecture. The intriguing cast includes Franco Citti as Oedipus, Silvana Mangano as his enigmatic mother/wife Jocasta, and Pasolini himself in the role of Thebes’ high priest.
Pasolini takes an approach to Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex [free online] that he would use again in two years on its mythic “twin,” his revisionist version of Euripides’s Medea. He takes a radical approach to the original Greek tragedy, begining the narrative many years before the action of the play. But what we lose in the ancient poets’ original texts is more than compensated for by Pasolini’s extraordinary visual imagination, and his probing modern sensibility.
One of Pasolini’s mssions was to bring awe back to the cinema, in the hope that it would spread to other aspects of what he saw as a colorless modern world. He brings a grandeur and epic sweep to his Oedipus Rex, even as he gives full weight to the intimate moments. He also makes stunning use of color and visual design.
Pasolini gets the full dramatic effect from beginning several important scenes with the primary figure far in the distance. As Oedipus, or Jocasta, moves towards the camera they replace the swirl of people with their own dominating presence. The technique is reminiscent of, say, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, but the strangely tense inflection is pure Pasolini. Take the triumphal entry of Oedipus into Thebes – an ancient, massive city made of adobe which rises out of the desert like some prehistoric beast – after he has slain the sphinx. Frame 1 above comes from the central part of this sequence: Note how Pasolini surrounds Oedipus with hundreds of authentic native people, and integrates the stark landscape into the shot. Despite the film’s limited budget, this breathtaking sequence can hold its own with anything in a Hollywood “sword and sandal” blockbuster like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, or the recent Gladiator.
Pasolini’s film also draws considerable power from the completely naturalistic performances, ranging from the leads to the minor characters. He gets a performance of enormous but subtle and enigmatic power from Silvana Mangano (Teorema and four other Pasolini films, Death in Venice for Visconti, Dune for director David Lynch and her husband, producer Dino De Laurentiis). Her stone-like face can suggest intense erotic heat with the microscopic wrinkling of a lip.
Franco Citti appeared in seven films for Pasolini (including the title role in Accattone), but here he brings a too consistent tone to the title role. Of course, Citti’s monolithic resolve, as both Oedipus the boy (whom we first see, played by Citti, as a youth who cheats in a discus match) and Oedipus the King, may be Pasolini’s point. Namely, since Oedipus refuses to grow, to come to an integrated understanding of who is he and what his society needs him to be, he destroys himself by his own wilful blindness.
The film includes many vivid small parts, including avant garde film and theater director Carmelo Bene, Julian Beck from New York’s Living Theater (in its heyday at the time of this film), the irrepressible Ninetto Davoli (who appeared in half of Pasolini’s films – and who was perhaps the great love of his life), and the writer/director himself as the High Priest of Thebes.
In terms of its powerful use of naturalistic style, the film bears comparison to Pasolini’s first masterpiece, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, made three years earlier. But while that film makes stunning use of its black and white cinematography, Oedipus Rex needs, and gets, the full color treatment. As suggested by the three frames included on this page, Oedipus Rex draws enormous force from its vivid palette and the use of the harsh Moroccan sunlight, not to mention its opulent, and sometimes outrageous sense of design.
Yet the literal clarity of the film does not obscure its dreamlike qualities. Pasolini wanted to film the myth as something which takes place in an authentic setting, yet which is set in a period which is outside of actual historical time. Even the eclectically multicultural soundtrack, with folk music from traditions as startlingly diverse as Japan and Rumania (and this was twenty years before the popularity of world music), helps give the film a sense of being outside one particular historical time and place. That is also why Pasolini created such bizarre costumes and props.
Pasolini was an outspoken proponent of the auteur theory, which states that a strong filmmaker is the author of their film. Pasolini took that to extreme lengths, designing every detail of his films, even the smallest, with his collaborators. You can see his sly, even campy, sense of humor at work in the eyepopping range of headgear throughout the film. It ranges from Oedipus’s stolid helmet to Jocasta’s frilly and feathery headpiece to Oedipus’s mile-high golden crown, which brings to mind a Tower of Babel.
Perhaps the most evocative prop is the sword which Oedipus uses to kill his father. In shape, it is phallic; but the narrow oval-shaped opening in its center simultaneously suggests a vagina. There is perhaps no stranger, wittier – or more self-conscious – sword until the self-elongating light sabres of the Star Wars saga.
It also reminds us that this film is intended to be brazenly autobiographical. The real protagonist of this Oedipus Rex is, of course, Pasolini himself. In a way perhaps similar to that in which Oedipus takes on a very human sphinx (instead of the mysterious monster of legend), Pasolini takes on Freud, and puts forth his own revision of the (in)famous Oedipus Complex. As he said in Oswald Strick’s fascinating collection, Pasolini on Pasolini, “I wanted to make the film freely…. I had two objectives: first, to make a kind of completely metaphoric – and therefore mythicized – autobiography; and second to confront both the problems of psycho-analysis and the problem of the myth.” (In the half hour documentary on Pasolini included on the DVD, one section is devoted to a concise examination of his views on this film.)
As Pasolini noted in his book Edipo re (Oedipus Rex), published simultaneously with the release of the film in 1967, by the point in his life when he made this film, he had moved beyond the received ideas of both Freud and Marx, which had been so important to him earlier. And it can be argued that the film’s unique combination of aestheticism (its visual splendors and intellectual rigor) and sometimes sly and subtle humor (the sphinx as a witch doctor; Oedipus killing his father with a penis/vagina sword) were ways in which Pasolini helped himself from the high seriousness of intellectuality.
Pasolini is always a fascinating, and sometimes a genuinely revealing, commentator on his own work. Sometimes you can hear his laughter, as he consciously sets out to shock us. Take this comment, from the book mentioned above. After noting that he is no slave to the Freudian Oedipus Complex, since “I have never dreamt of making love with my mother,” he continues “Rather I have dreamt, if at all, of making love with my father (against the dresser in the miserable bedroom my brother and I shared as children)…” The actor (Luciano Bartoli) he chose to play Laius, the father in Oedipus Rex, bears an astonishing resemblance to his own father, the Fascist military officer. The photographs reproduced in Enzo Siciliano’s Pasolini: A Biography show Carlo Alberto Pasolini to have been a handsome, cocky, and stone cold young man.
But even for audiences with no interest in critiques of Freud, or Pasolini’s particular brand of father fantasy, this film succeeds in bringing both Oedipus and his world astonishingly to life. It is light years removed from the typical “mythic” characters of its day, like the cheesy but fun Hercules, who may have been Italy’s high-grossing creation of the 1950s and ’60s. Pasolini’s Oedipus is both the figure of myth and a strangely dark reflection of the filmmaker himself.
In terms of its impact on film history (along with stylistically comparable Pasolini films like The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Medea), its influence can be seen on pictures as diverse as Fellini Satyricon (1969), Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
Oedipus Rex is also a fascinating film in its own right, since it works simultaneously on so many levels. It is at once a work of outrageous design and deep feeling, a semi-camp epic with genuine mythic resonance. And it shows Pasolini grappling with some of the knottiest themes of his films, and of most people’s lives, namely the relationship of men and women, of child and parents, and of one man to himself. In its prologue, it also presents the most boldly, albeit brief, autobiographical filmmaking to that point in Pasolini’s career. But with all of its cultural, political and personal questioning, Pasolini never forgets that he is also creating a film of endless visual wonder, bringing one of our central myths vividly to life, with all of its profound strangeness intact.
Outline of the Film
Since the DVD does not contain any chapter stops (explained below), here is my own synopsis, which purposely omits Pasolini’s major surprises. I hope this helps you locate scenes and sequences of particular interest. Please note that the numberings below often parallel Pasolini’s own divisions, indicated in the film by a fade out/fade in.
- 0:00:00 – Prologue: Unlike most of the film, the opening sequence is set in a Thebes situated in pre-World War II Italy but the action is the same as in the myth. We see the birth of Oedipus to the beautiful Jocasta and her husband, Laius (here a Fascist military officer who lives in a spacious villa). Jocasta has a tender scene alone with her baby in a placid meadow, as the infant looks up at the tall swaying trees. Jealous of his son, Laius grabs him by the feet (Oedipus literally means “swollen foot”). Cut to…
- 0:11:53 – Oedipus’s Childhood in Corinth: We are now in the ancient world of myth, on a barren hilly plain. A sheperd finds the baby (Oedipus) and gives him to the delighted, and childless, King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth. Cut to…
- 0:18:01 – Young Oedipus: Oedipus is now a handsome youth (who cheats in a discus match).
- 0:22:17 – Oedipus leaves Corinth to explore the world. An oracle tells him that he will murder his father and marry his mother. So when Oedipus sees signs pointing back to Corinth he avoids them like the plague. He has visions of what his life might be like if he were to go to any of three other cities. At last he strikes out for Thebes.
- 0:34:47 – Oedipus is stopped by now elderly Laius’s wagon. His guards attack Oedipus, who kills all of them but one (who escapes) and Laius.
- 0:43:40 – Oedipus sees a mass of people fleeing Thebes which is under attack from a monster. Oedipus finds the dreaded sphinx (which here resembles an African witch doctor) and slays it.
- 0:53:00 – His reward is the kingdom of Thebes and the hand in marriage of the now-widowed Queen Jocasta.
- 0:55:88 – Title screen proclaims “Part Two” (this second half of the film covers the same material as Sophocles’ play). A terrible plague has fallen on Thebes, and the High Priest (played by Pasolini) implores King Oedipus to take action.
- 1:03:06 – Oedipus proceeds with his investigation into who is causing the plague. Evidence begins to point to him, as he interrogates the blind prophet Tiresias, who says, “You refuse to see the evil within yourself.”
- 1:15:48 – Several scenes between Oedipus and Jocasta are interspersed with Oedipus confronted by Creon (Jocasta’s brother). Jocasta begins to suspect the true identity of her husband/son.
- 1:30:27 – Oedipus goes to Laius’ servant and learns the truth. When Jocasta learns of what she has done, she hangs herself. Oedipus finds her body and gouges out his eyes.
- 1:39:32 – Epilogue: Set in Pasolini’s present day (1967), the messenger Angelo leads the blind Oedipus through a city. Then they go to the same meadow where Jocasta had held Oedipus as a baby. Oedipus says, “Life ends where it begins.” The End
- Directed by Pasolini
- Written by Pasolini, based on Sophocles’ play
- Produced by Alfredo Bini
- Cinematography by Giuseppe Ruzzolini
- Art Direction by Luigi Scaccianoce
- Costume Design by Danilo Donati
- Sound by Carlo Tarchi
- Edited by Nino Baragli
- Franco Citti as Oedipus
- Silvana Mangano as Jocasta
- Alida Valli as Merope
- Ahmed Belhachmi as Polybus
- Carmelo Bene as Creon
- Julian Beck as Tiresias
- Ninetto Davoli as Angelo the Messenger
- Luciano Bartoli as Laius
- Pasolini as the High Priest
Original 2003 Video Release (Used for This Review)
Water Bearer Films has released a DVD with fair image and sound from the best available elements. The DVD case states, “Prints made available through the co-operation of the Pier Paolo Pasolini Foundation, Rome.”
Why No Chapter Stops? I checked with the DVD’s distributor, Water Bearer, about why there are are no chapters, i.e., the entire film is presented in one continuous track. This was a condition made by the Pasolini Foundation, which controls the rights to the film, to encourage viewers to watch it in its entirety. (The only other filmmaker who insists on his DVDs being released without chapters is David Lynch.) I certainly understand and respect the Pasolini Foundation’s decision, but you are welcome to refer my outline of the film however you wish. And chapter stops or not, we owe a considerable debt of gratitude to Water Bearer Films (which specializes in gay & lesbian, international, and silent cinema, as well as filmed plays and musicals) for releasing the DVD of this important part of Pasolini’s cinematic legacy. And yes, their other releases do indeed contain chapter stops.
- Original uncut version
- Original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.85: 1
- Original mono soundtrack
- Never before seen 30 minute documentary on the life and works of Pasolini
- $29.95 suggested retail
Reviewed April 11, 2003 / Revised October 12, 2020