Pier Paolo Pasolini's first color film is an adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. At the forefront of the conflict in Pasolini's Oedipus Rex (1967) (aka "Edipo Re") is a concern with fate and destiny – a subject that is already found within Pasolini's earlier films. Accattone is destined to live the life of a pimp in Accattone (1961), Mamma Roma will always be a prostitute in Mamma Roma (1962), Jesus has to die for the sins of man in The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964), and all things are destined to come to an end in The Hawks and The Sparrows (1966).
Rather than approaching Oedipus Rex as a literal adaptation, as Pasolini did with The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964), Pasolini imbues his film with his own poetic sensibilities. Starting with the birth of a baby in the early 1900s, this baby is nurtured and cared for by his young and beautiful mother (Silvana Mangano). The life that she has outside of the child is a source of frustration for the baby though. Whether he's left on a blanket in the park while his mother spends time with other women, or is left at home alone while she spends time with her husband, the baby is jealous. That jealousy goes the other way as well though as the husband feels that his son is taking away from some of the love that he once received from his wife. As the husband grabs his infant son's ankles, we cut to the deserts of Morocco over two thousand years ago. An infant is tied by his feet and hands to a pole that is being carried by a man – an image comparable to the preceding image of the father grabbing his son by the ankles. Eventually, the man stops and leaves the baby on the ground, hands still tied, to die. A local shepherd witnesses this and can hear the baby crying, so he goes to retrieve the child and brings the baby to the king of Corinth. The King and Queen of Corinth adopt the baby, naming him Oedipus, and raise him as if he was their own. Nearly two decades later, Oedipus (Franco Citti) is now a man, and he remains oblivious of his adoption. When he visits a priest at Apollo's shrine in Delphi to discover the meaning of a dream he had, Oedipus is told that it is his fate to kill his father and make love with his mother. At first, Oedipus believes this is a joke, but then he realizes that the priest has not said this in jest. Ashamed and fearful that he will return home and do as the priest said, Oedipus wanders the desert in a journey filled with violence and sex that will lead him to fulfilling the priest's prophecy.
Even though Oedipus Rex is a period piece, Franco Citti doesn't let it get in the way of his performance as Oedipus. Transitioning from boyish charm to terrified disbelief, Citti does more than carry the film – he humanizes the larger than life story. Even when he's fighting the guards that protect the King of Thebes' carriage, Citti manages to make his physical struggle to outrun the soldiers and then turn back to kill each one of them believable. On the other end of the spectrum is Silvana Mangano who expresses a great deal through subtlety. In both her portrayal of the mother in the 1900s and the Queen of Thebes. On a casting level alone, Pasolini's decision to have her play two roles expresses the characters' thematic connection. If the jump back two thousand years wasn't enough, Mangano's dual roles adds to some of the more toned-down surreal qualities in Pasolini's Oedipus Rex.
Three years prior to this film, Michelangelo Antonioni made his color directorial debut, Red Desert (1964), and the next year Fellini made his, Juliet of The Spirits (1965). Antonioni, a director known for the cinematography in his films, uses shades of grey with occasional pops of color (like Monica Vitti's red hair) to great effect. Fellini was well-established as a showman, so the addition of color was a natural compliment to his theatrical tendencies. On the other hand, color for Pasolini allows for him to show the truth about people and places. Shot in rich Technicolor by Giuseppe Ruzzolini, the use of color in Oedipus Rex allows for the costumes by Danilo Donati and production design by Luigi Scaccionoce to really stand out against the barren landscape that the bulk of the film takes place around. Their costumes and set design is unique, but Pasolini's camera treats them as a part of the environment – nothing more, nothing less. Handheld cinematography is prevalent throughout the course if the film. In The Gospel According To St. Matthew, there were some handheld moments, but nothing on this level. With Oedipus Rex being a period piece shot in color, the handheld camerawork takes away from the cinematic qualities associated with films that would generally be classified as sword and sandal epics. By undermining the conventional form of such films, he is able to remain true to his own stylistic sensibilities
Beyond the cinematography, the soundscapes in the film are grounded in reality as well. During the opening credits, the sound of cicadas screeching on a hot summer day is the only thing heard. For most of the prologue of the film set in the 1900s, there's no dialogue. Again, as Oedipus wanders the desert on his own, there's little-to-no dialogue. This film could've been fairly quiet, with a realistic sound design to compliment the handheld aesthetic of portions of the film. However, Pasolini utilizes a vibrant soundtrack that emphasizes the atmosphere and emotions of the characters while they struggle with their own interior battles. Perhaps the most striking piece of music in Oedipus Rex is from another film: Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957). The low beating of the drums and the haunting airy tone of the flute accent the moment that Oedipus discovers his fate from the priest at Apollo's shrine.
Oedipus Rex is an enigmatic film that defies the source material by jumping through time. All at once, Pasolini's adaptation is filled with theatricality, realism, and surrealism. Ambiguity in the prologue and epilogue negate any of the constraints to the source material that Pasolini (or the viewers) feel. Pasolini is not bound to the story, or to time for that matter. Of course Pasolini is able to bring out the realism in his adaptation, but his poetic approach to that realism is what makes his film of Oedipus Rex a remarkable film. Repetition, metaphor, allusion, and simile are all actively being used in a visual and aural sense, making Pasolini's film a fresh and original take on a classic tragedy.
My Rating: 4.5/5