Pasolini seems to ascribe the intellectuality of Sophocles’ Oedipus
less to Oedipus the mythic archetype than to the critical spirit
and scientific outlook of fifth century Athens, to the outstanding
achievements of a generation of sophists, scientists, and philosophers,
that is, to a precise moment in history. Consequently he has
deliberately and, one might say, perversely chosen to create
a non-intellectual Oedipus. Pasolini’s Oedipus does not want
to explore the unknown. He is not concerned with the meaning
of life. Nor does he share with Sophocles’ hero the propensity
of an aspirant epistemologist for divisions and distinctions.
Pasolini scrupulously avoids the inclusion of any scene in which
Oedipus might be seen investigating, examining, questioning,
inferring, clarifying, or demonstrating. The unnerving lengths
to which Pasolini will go in this regard are revealed most flamboyantly
in an early scene where Oedipus comes to a crossroad and must
decide which road to take. He eschews any careful, analytical
deliberation of his situation. Instead, he clasps his hands to
his eyes and spins around several times in a movement that seems
like nothing so much as a portentous prelude to blind man’s bluff.
He then removes his hands from his eyes and walks off to the
Oedipus’ non-intellectuality is most positively conveyed, however,
in the curious scene in which Oedipus encounters the Sphinx.
In Sophocles’ play, Oedipus’ fame and reputation are based primarily
upon his solution to the riddle of Sphinx. By unraveling the
riddle that no other man could solve, Oedipus saved the city
of Thebes. But Pasolini’s Sphinx, more Jungian analyst than Terrible
Mother, does not propound a riddle. It rears its head and, speaking
from behind a mask, informs Oedipus that there is an enigma in
his life. It attempts to force Oedipus to look into himself and
to question the mystery of his being. But Oedipus resolutely
refuses to search for the truth. He not only concedes his ignorance
but acquiesces in it. Rather than traverse the abyss of his soul,
Oedipus lunges forward and slays the Sphinx.
Pasolini, a Marxist, likewise sees the emergence of the petit
bourgeoisie with its attendant moral code as being a decidedly
historical and temporal phenomenon. He maintains that in place
of the soul, which is a transcendental reality, it has substituted
conscience, which is at best a shadowy social convention. And
so, in order to capture the mythicness of Oedipus, Pasolini attempts
to reconstruct a pre-bourgeois mentality where conformity in
conduct to a prescribed moral standard is not taken for granted.
He has tried to place Oedipus in a more mythic, subproletarian
world completely stripped of any traces of bourgeois morality
– a world in which, to use Pasolini’s own example, a young boy,
were he to discover that his mother was a prostitute, would offer
her, instinctively and unabashedly, a gift so that she would
make love to him.
So, Pasolini’s Oedipus is inevitably less civilised and less
scrupulous than Sophocles’. [...] But perhaps the most striking
instance of Oedipus’ amorality in the film may be found in the
savage love scene that follows the revelations of Teiresias.
Despite (or perhaps because) of the possibility of incest, Oedipus
makes love to Jocasta brutally. He tears off her clothes and
seems almost to be raping her. It is the most impassioned love-making
in the entire film and is filled with the intoxication of exultant
shame and the excitement of sacrilege.
Finally, by exploiting the spatio-temporal freedom of film, Pasolini
is able to introduce into Edipo Re scenes and images that seem
designed to speak directly to his audience’s unconscious, to
penetrate the labyrinthine recesses of their collective selves.
For example, there is a beautiful but ultimately elusive scene
without any dialogue which shows Jocasta (Silvana Mangano) laughing
and playing with her women in the palace garden just before she
commits suicide. After her death, moreover, Pasolini cuts from
a low angle medium close-up of Jocasta, who has hanged herself
from the ceiling, to the city of Thebes with its barren hills
– a long shot mysteriously suggestive of exhausted earth-mothers
and hierogamies on the rocks. Finally, there are at least two
scenes in the film which seem to imply a relationship, beyond
the solely physical, between sex and death: a theme as old and
obsessive as the myths of Eve, Pandora, and the harlot of Gilgamesh.
Oedipus’ naked body drawing Jocasta down into a vast canopied
bed is followed immediately by a disturbing close-up of a body,
blistered and disfigured with plague, lying in the sun. Later,
a high angle close-up of Oedipus’ hand feverishly undoing the
gold ornament that fastens Jocasta’s robe is suddenly followed
by a shot of a funeral cortege.
Pasolini’s Edipo Re is, then, an attempt to inhabit the realms
of myth and dream. Pasolini has worked through the medium of
film, believing as he does that images are closer to myth than
words. Whereas Sophocles took the myth of Oedipus and clothed
it in history in order to interpret the times, Pasolini has taken
the myth and stripped it of history in order to enter more fully
into the myth. Taken together, the two approaches bear eloquent
testimony to the Protean nature of myth.
"Literature Film Quarterly",
Vol. 5, No. 1, 1977