Skip to main content

Oedipus Rex' part of the Pasolini season at BFI Southbank

A Review of 'Oedipus Rex' Part of the Season Celebrating the Polemic Italian Director, Pier Paolo Pasolini 

Pier Paolo Pasolini reinterprets Sophocles’ Greek tragedy in the epic, semi-autobiographical Oedipus Rex. The film’s premise remains true to the original however Pasolini’s distinctive poetry and style are wholly imbued in the telling. Prophesised at birth, and again as a young man, to murder his father and make love to his mother, Oedipus (Franco Cicci) wanders a beautifully stark and burnished desert in bitterness and fear of his fate.

In the first of his colour films, Pasolini achieves a startlingly exquisite depiction of the desert and colossal ancient cities of Thebes and Corinth, using the unrelenting Moroccan sunlight to superb visual effect. While the majority of the film takes place in this mythic reimagining of ancient Greece, with fantastical costumes and eye watering landscapes, the story begins and ends in 1970s fascist Italy.

It is fitting Pasolini’s approach to the material dwells less on the fixations of the Oedipus complex than it does Oedipus’ futile denial of his fate. As it is a partly autobiographical interpretation, it is worth noting that Pasolini said he himself he was far more prone to dreaming of making love to his father than his mother. This approach is reflected nowhere more so than the film’s score. Drawing from a variety of genres and cultures, the soundtrack is dogged and unrelenting in its hold on Oedipus and the viewer. Particularly affecting is the Japanese flute music, first played by the blind prophet who denounces Oedipus, and finally by the 1970s Oedipus in exile.

The exquisite camera work, at once grand and intimate, implicates us in Oedipus’ fate. In the opening sequence, Jocasta (Silvana Mangano), with Oedipus at her teat turns to look directly into the camera; knowing, amusement and trepidation all flash across her face. Here, and again at other times, Pasolini acknowledges the omnipresence of the truth, known to all but the resistant Oedipus. Handheld shots of Oedipus heap pressure on Franco Cicci and while his performance is perhaps over dramatic at times, he holds up well under Pasolini’s searching lens. In another league, Silvana Mangano at once seduces and unsettles the viewer with a haltingly beautiful and complex performance.

The contrast of 1970s Fascist Italy and the fantastical, carnival-esque quality of the ancient Greek plains, mirrors Pasolini’s desire to free his work from the rampant consumerism engulfing Italy at the time. He may in fact be drawing a parallel between what he saw as inexorable homogenisation of his pre-industrial Italy, and Oedipus’ demise. The epilogue set in 1970s Italy finds Oedipus cast from society and this clutches at the viewer more suddenly and deeply than his exile from Thebes. 

The Director’s other forays into ancient myth, ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’ and Euripides’ ‘Medea’, will also play during this BFI season.  Anti-capitalist sentiment featured in much of Pasolini’s work and spurred him to film outside the West, he went on to the film much of Arabian Nights in the same location as Oedipus (screening from the 20th of April at the BFI). Across all of his mediums, Pasolini was a deft commentator and thinker, not a reactionary as some would have it. He seemed able to transcend his class and era to speak objectively on the state of Italy’s politics and development.  

His trademark picturesque neo-realism presented too harsh a depiction of life for many of Pasolini’s contemporaries, as did his frequent subversion of sexual norms. In ‘Theorema’ Pasolini conducts the succinct tale of a young man who enters a bourgeois Italian home only to seduce and abandon each member of the family in turn. This theme was at its most fervent and gruesome in his final film, released shortly after his murder in 1975, ‘Salo’, or 120 Days of Sodom’. Pasolini’s ability to move above and ahead of his time mean his films feel as unquestionably relevant today, 40 years after his death, as they were then. The BFI’s two part season runs until May 9th and includes an evening of performances of Pasolini’s poetry, and a day of study including talks, screenings and discussions. 

For the full programme and to book your tickets, click here


Guest Contributor, Rory Gibson, 

Rory was part of the team behind the first British Student Film Festival, a national short film festival which debuted in 2012. In his spare time he likes to put together his own short films and videos. Rory currently works within a video marketing team at Impact Marketing which offers video production and YouTube TrueView advertising services.