Saturday, February 13, 2016

Oedipus Rex

There's lots of raw, harsh screaming in Pier Paolo Pasolini's screen version of Oedipus Rex (1967).  If you don't keep the volume low, the movie will upset your dog and trouble your children's slumbers.  Pasolini is fascinated by cruelty and many of the images in the film have the stark, pitiless clarity of cinquecento paintings of the martyrdom of saints or Herod's slaughter of the innocents.  Furthermore, Pasolini's staging of violence, although muted by present standards, is disturbingly effective.  When Oedipus meets his father at a crossroads in the wasteland, he flees, at first, from the King's guards, running ahead of them down the dusty track through the badlands with his flimsy bronze-age sword clutched to his chest.  Summoning his courage in a tremendous howl, Oedipus suddenly stops running, turns around and blindly charges his attacker, cutting the man down on the road.  Still screaming like a berserker, he charges down the lane, knocks down and impales the other two guards, and, then, slashes the king on his primitive chariot -- all of this has a primitive force and fury.  When a henchman of the king in an early part of the film carries the infant Oedipus into the desert to kill him, the tiny child is trussed up like a game animal and slung nonchalantly on a staff carried on the man's shoulder.  All gestures in this film are outsized and monumental, the shepherd who finds the child writhing in the dirt brings the infant to his wife as if the child were a very great prize, a treasure beyond compare -- in the midst of excoriating lamentations, people also celebrate with gaudy larger-than-life gestures.

Pasolini begins and ends the movie in our century, a puzzling poetic strategy that brackets the action of the play that otherswise takes place in a primordial landscape of barren, eroded hills and sinister-looking mud villages with crumbling clay ramparts.  (The film was apparently shot in Morocco in the Sahel -- the remote desert caravanserai look like the artifacts of another age entirely.  Featureless walls sheltering pueblo-like structures improbably crown the crests of badland hills.  There is a oasis that looks like a green ribbon in the tawny, gravel-strewn desert -- a strip of low walls with watchtowers guards the precious water.  One fortified city opens into decayed atriums where mud-brick towers slump down over suspended balconies.)  In the opening scenes, we see a child born -- although the image is remote, viewed through the window of a farmhouse.  A child bearing a black flag, possibly signifying fascism, runs through the courtyard of a big communal farm.  (It looks like the big collective farm to which one of the character's retired in Teorema).  Oedipus' father is a handsome, if sullen, military officer and his mother has the timeless features of a Fra Angelico Madonna -- her face is white and seems to have had its features all scoured away except for the woman's vast, strangely emotionless eyes.  Oedipus father doesn't really speak -- he glowers at the baby and, then, we see a title explaining what he is thinking:  he accuses the baby of destroying his wife's love for him.  Oedipus' mother brings the baby into a great tree-shaded meadow where she plays with other young women and, then, breast-feeds him -- it is all very summery with the sound of insects rasping in the hot air.  The camera whirls and the next shot shows us desolate badlands with the King's henchman cheerfully carrying the trussed-up infant into the desert to be killed -- suddenly, we have left nineteen-thirties Italy and find ourselves in the bronze age, three-thousand five-hundred years ago in a lunar landscape of smashed stone where ragged men wear immense hats, turbans, horned helmets with grotesque face-plates, other horseman wearing headgear that looks like screws, bolts, and nuts.  Pasolini dramatizes the bulk of Euripides' play in this African setting -- Apollo at Delphi is a masked figure holding court under the only tree within a hundred miles:  supplicants kneel in long lines in front of the witchdoctor, awaiting their turn to be called into the shade of the tree a hundred years away.   The witchdoctor is flanked by nearly naked boys with painted bodies.  The sphinx is a figure crouching behind an immense mask with a medusa-tangle of raffia hair extending in all directions.  The sphinx squats in a cup-shaped depression in brown and eroded badlands.  Pasolini eliminates the chorus and presents the film's action in a straightforward manner, cutting from extreme long-shots to intense, if often inexpressive, close-ups.  After killing the sphinx, Oedipus is brought to Jocasta's city where he marries her.  The plague ensues with the sky full of black birds darting over the corpses like flies.  Oedipus discovers his crime and finds his mother hanging in the corner of the mud palace.  He uncovers her nakedness and, then, gouges out his eyes with his dagger, his shrieks morphing into the infant's cries when the little baby was abandoned in the wasteland at the start of the film.  As Oedipus leaves the shambles of the mud-walled city, Pasolini cuts away to modern Italy.  A blind man is led by a beggar through the streets of an industrial city.  The blind man plays on a flute and we see clouds of pollution darkening the skies.  The movie is simple enough, uncluttered, and the African locations are truly remarkable, even, surreal -- you keep thinking to yourself that these towers of mud and these long, funereal walls of collapsing mud bricks can't really exist, at least, not now in our present century, these weird pinnacles of clay are figments of the imagination, the forms of archaic thought.  And the film has a visceral impact:  in a late scene in the film, Oedipus encounters the shepherd who saved his life:  the man is kneeling next to a shallow irrigation ditch, rooting around in the mud, presumably to keep the ditch clear and flowing.  The green of the fields contrasts in a startling way with the stony, erosion-clawed hills around the irrigated land -- everything in this scene seems, at once, honest and authentic and, even, somehow familiar; the viewer has a sense of deja vu -- this archaic landscape and its personages are somehow embedded in our modern psyche. 

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