By Andrew Harwood
The Greek chorus blares their droll commentary as Jocasta, wife of Oedipus and Queen of Thebes, runs into the palace and hangs herself. Oedipus lingers, having just been told other horrid news, still unknowing of his beloved wife’s fate. His servant follows after the Queen, only to return with morbid information. Oedipus rushes to his wife, breaks down and in a fight of philosophical punishment, stabs himself in the eyes proclaiming, “I only want to see darkness.” Only moments earlier, Oedipus realized that he had killed his father and slept with and married his mother.
Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” is one of the greatest Greek tragedies ever written. A simple story with events that unravel within one day, “Oedipus Rex” stands as the ultimate example of how seeking the truth can lead to horror.
Having been adapted so many times to the silver screen before, there seems to be no better adaptation than Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1967 “Edipo Re.”
Pasolini is a man who needs no introduction, but perhaps he deserves one. An Italian scholar and essayist turned filmmaker, Pasolini is best remembered for his taboo subject material, controversial career and his untimely and unsolvable murder. It is only fitting then, that he conquered “Oedipus Rex.”
I want to preface the rest of this with a blatant statement of just how absurdist and weirdly uncomfortable Pasolini’s film is. We are dealing with a story of incest, murder, suicide and, of course, tragedy. But, in an oh-so Pasolini nature, it is brought to an utterly haunting yet wonderfully immersive extreme.
“Edipo Re,” Italian for “Oedipus the King,” begins in modern-day Italy, as Oedipus is born to the Queen Jocasta and King Laius of Thebes. With the arrival of a prophet proclaiming the son’s future of killing his father and marrying of his mother, the Queen and King hand the child over to a messenger and ask for his disposal. The messenger abides but doesn’t kill the child, unknowingly starting the prophecy.
At this moment in the film, the setting abruptly changes from pre-war Italy to the ancient Mediterranean. The change is fitting, given the fact that such events would probably not occur in the same context during “modern” times. A transition to the past — an era of man versus nature, man versus truth, man versus himself — is incredibly welcoming.
There’s no need to fully divulge the plot of the film, for we understand the basis of “Oedipus Rex.” But, it is important to note how Pasolini portrays and adapts this tragedy. Pasolini seems to rely on landscapes and faces to help capture a sense of isolation and emotion — showing a stark contrast between characters’ whereabouts and their primal gaze.
Further than that, Pasolini’s work is reminiscent of Romanticism, as he brings out the sentiment, passions and seeking of the light from what can only be deemed as dark. Pasolini and realism cannot be joined together, for there exists no correlation between the two. Pasolini simply cannot portray something as to how it should be portrayed. Because to him, cinema is poetry, and poetry is romantic.
It seems almost paradoxical to designate a tale of incest and tragedy as romantic. Quite frankly, it is, but what’s more interesting is Pasolini’s embracement and use of such a taboo subject as his driving force. It’s incredibly discomforting and sickening to see Oedipus and his mother make love and foreplay for minutes on-screen. It’s a symbol of the perils of seeking the truth, perhaps, yet it behaves in such a grotesque manner to which we mustn’t ignore.
But that is what Sophocles’ tragedy is all about: finding the truth, even if it might harm you.
Emotional in every aspect, sickening in taboo material, brutal in tragedy, yet exceptional in story and framing, Pasolini’s “Edipo Re” does great justice to the infamous play.