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Oedipus Rex (1967) Movie Review

We first see Jocasta (Silvana Mangano) giving birth to Oedipus, from afar as if we are voyeur’s looking in on a sex act (a fitting introduction given the Freudian psychological product of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex). Next, we see her in a pleasing closeup. As her baby nurses from her, her smiling face recedes into a blank look that borders on concern, before her delight returns. Only, this delight seems lessened. Her face looks as though she has seen something, an omen of some kind.

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Of course, the dramatic irony inherent in this opening is intentional. Director Pier Paolo Pasolini imbues the tonal undercurrent of the film with both a sexual subtext and a foreshadowing of what is to come.

Indeed, the film’s inciting incident is motivated by this sexual energy. More accurately, it could be called a sexual imbalance. When Oedipus’ father Laius (Luciano Bartoli) fails to have intercourse with Jocasta, he banishes the baby in the desert.

As with the source material, Oedipus Rex is a film that focuses on jealousy and pride. Like his father, Oedipus lives his life and executes his rise to power with swift bouts of violent pride.

If a Pasolini film like Accattone is obsessed with the panning shot, Oedipus Rex shows Pasolini obsessed with the handheld tracking shot, following just in front of or behind the characters. Again, it gives off the impression of a voyeur in the characters’ midst. That voyeur being us, of course.

To further place the two films in comparison, Accattone is very much a film dictated by speech, whereas Oedipus Rex is one driven by actions. Both lead to consequences, often dire, but they make for different moviegoing experiences.

Accattone asks you to read the central character (both films’ heroes are played by Franco Citti, coincidentally) through the words spoken and their multiple meanings. Often the subtext is thinly veiled, but it is certainly not a film where Accattone’s actions hold major consequences. Mostly because his fate is sealed from the first lines of the film.

Similarly, Oedipus’ fate is sealed with the words of an oracle. But this fate is one that stems from action. Oedipus’ time in the desert is marked more by the dissonant flute score than dialogue.

It is somewhat ironic then (somewhat, because it seems mainly a result of low budget) that much of the violent consequences of the action in this section are shielded from our view by sunlight. Through this choice, the focus seems to rest more on Oedipus’ struggle than those outbursts that seal his murderous and incestuous fate.

Citti plays the character with wide-eyed torment. Only early on is he seen with any joy in his face. It only returns, apprehensively, when he unknowingly reunites with his mother.

This moment is also striking in the choice to depict Jocasta, now decades older, as looking even younger than she does at the start of the film. However, the more you look at her white-pasted face, the more artificial her appearance becomes. The once welcoming, pleased face that cradled her newborn is new rendered distant and cold by the makeup masking her face.

The whole film progresses in this manner. As the story progresses, as Oedipus moves through the desert and eventually takes up the throne, the film flattens against the desert landscape. A coldness comes from this, an emotional vacancy that is hard to wade through.

One might be invited to empathize with the tragedy of Oedipus, which is shown so fully in Citti’s performance. But the film’s style disallows this, restricting us from entrance into the world of the tragedy.

The film makes attempts to build on its visual vacancy. It gives Citti plenty of enraged catharsis in the film’s final act, as is warranted in an adaptation of the tragedy. However, the film cuts in and out of moments, oscillating so rapidly from quiet to furious that it could cause whiplash.

Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex is a strange adaptation of an eternally strange Greek tragedy. While it holds two soulful performances (from Citti and Mangano), the camera loses something in the drabness of its capture. Pasolini renders the adaptation abstract with its out-of-time elements and its frenetic final act. While the ambiguous ending that results from this is intriguing and sure to instigate conversation, it is hard to see what fruitful end would come out of this discussion.

 

As always, thanks for reading!

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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)

 

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