Love your mother by all means… just don’t love your mother.
Love your mother by all means… just don’t love your mother. Written by the Greek tragedian Sophocles in
429 BCE, Oedipus Rex is now best
known as the inspiration for Sigmund Freud’s suggestion that all male children are
possessed of a form of sexual jealousy that makes them yearn to murder their
fathers and sleep with their mothers. Somewhat unexpectedly, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s
interpretation of the play downplays the incest in order to focus upon the
inter-generational conflict. Languid in pace, stunning in design and
overflowing with raw visual power, Pasolini’s Oedipus offers a truly tragic
depiction of post-War Italian masculinity.
The film opens on an Italian
apartment building where a beautiful woman (Silvana Mangano) gives birth to a healthy son. As the sun rises and
sets, the woman and son grow older and closer together until the boy’s father (Luciano Bartoli) becomes consumed with
jealousy. Angrily proclaiming his hatred for the interloper, the man decides to
murder his son in the hope of regaining his wife’s affections. Here, Pasolini
yanks us out of the film’s present and transports us back to a mythical past.
As in Pasolini’s (recently re-released) Pigsty,
this journey to the past serves to imbue the film’s narrative with a sense of
psychological universality, as though the fate of Oedipus were the fate of
Oedipus is left to die on an
ancient mountainside but is taken in by a local king who raises him as his own.
When Oedipus becomes a man (Franco Citti),
he takes to the road where he winds up murdering his biological father the king
of Thebes. Upon arriving in Thebes, Oedipus slays a monster and unwittingly
marries his biological mother. Initially, Oedipus is a popular king but his
rule becomes troubled when the local seers begin blaming him for a terrible
sickness affecting the city. Plagued by feelings of guilt and paranoia, Oedipus
begins a process of self-examination that culminates with the discovery that he
killed his own father and married his mother. Disgusted with himself and with
God for allowing this to happen, Oedipus blinds himself and takes to the road
as a wandering minstrel. From there, Pasolini transports us to present-day
Bologna where a deranged and homeless Oedipus wanders the streets in search of
a place to die.
Oedipus Rex is one of the most
beautiful films ever made. Its opening sequences of people running around a
field are fiercely reminiscent of the whispered awe that flows throughout the
films of Terrence Malick. Pasolini
captures the North African landscape with the eye of a painter, the deep red of
the sand constantly at war with the brilliant blue of the sky while the film’s
outlandish costumes seem to shriek defiance at the heavens themselves. We are
here! We are human! We exist! Staggeringly beautiful, the film’s production
design is reminiscent of what might have happened had the surrealist master Alejandro Jodorowsky been recruited to
direct films like 300 and Immortals.
Aside from its powerful visuals,
the film also offers some thought-provoking commentary on the issue of
inter-generational conflict. For Pasolini, the real tragedy of Oedipus’s life
is not that he wound up having sex with his mother but rather that he wound up
taking his father’s place despite doing everything in his power to become his
own man. Indeed, the very reason why Oedipus leaves his the home of his adopted
parents is out of a desire to ‘find himself’ and walk his own path. The fact
that the gods stepped in and forced Oedipus to assume the role of his father
speaks to the same set of frustrations as Pasolini’s Pigsty, where young people
are forced to commit pointless atrocities in an effort to distance themselves
from the desires of their parents.
As is always the case with Masters
of Cinema releases, the Blu-ray edition of Oedipus Rex is staggeringly
beautiful and entirely worthy of your money and time. The only extra included
on the disc is a trailer but the film comes with a fascinating booklet
comprising essays, interviews and all kinds of learned commentary on what must
be one of the most under-rated Italian films of all time.