Masters Of Cinema #39 - Oedipus Rex - Blu-ray Review

'Citti gives Oedipus the air of a troublesome teenager; petty, uncertain, aghast at a world which seems not to recognise that which it owes him.'

Search for evidence that Freud's Oedipus complex does not exist and you will find few willing to argue the matter formally, yet many who will dismiss it casually, driven not by analytic theory but by disgust at the thought of a theorem built around the breaking of one of society's greatest taboos.

Pier Paolo Pasolini is certainly not going to stand and argue with Freud. Oedipus Rex is a film Pasolini himself describes as autobiographical. 'I recount the story of my own Oedipus complex', the director tells us, in an excerpt included in this edition's presentational booklet.

Odd then, that, in a way, it is one of the few critics you can find willing to at least stretch Freud's theory, who seems to hint best at what Oedipus Rex may actually best stand for. Anouchka Grose reads the complex as being rooted in an individual's attempts to 'stop trying to be everything for [their] primary career, and get on with being something for the rest of the world'. In short, the complex refers to the boundaries between being reliant on a Mother and moving on to (or failing to move on to) pastures new.

This ties in well to the way in which Oedipus (Franco Citti) is portrayed in Pasolini's film. Citti gives Oedipus the air of a troublesome teenager; petty, uncertain, aghast at a world which seems not to recognise that which it owes him. This may seem like a simplistic take on the early middle segment - Oedipus running around screaming, riddled with angst - but consider other elements; the head-strong attack on the sphinx, the cheat in the early game, the disbelief when the solution to the problem of plague does not easily present itself and eventually, the inability to govern properly. Oedipus is, at times, like Kevin the teenager and Pasolini's film like a spot on his chin, desperate to burst out in a hail of teenage rebellion, rather than contemplate anything seriously.

This appears to lends credence to the popular conception that Oedipus is one of Paolini's more accessible films. 'Pasolini makes this ancient tragedy entertaining and accessible', says Empire. Don't be fooled. Whilst the director reverts Sophocles' ancient tale and Freud's lofty complex to simple emotions this is still incredibly tough going, the large middle section proving an unremitting trudge.

'If the main plot had been cleaner of method, presented with more to say, applicable to 'modern times', would Pasolini have needed to revert back to modern day at the end of his film?'

The effect of joining this middle act - set 'outside history', in a feudal-style society - after the lyrical joy of the introduction is particularly jolting. Sharing an ambiance with Peter Weir's much later Picnic At Hanging Rock, Pasolini drifts us off into the timeless dream world of 1920s Italy, where Oedipus' mother (Silvana Mangano) and father (Luciano Bartoli) both seem to forecast that which is to come. The shot of Mangano looking directly in to the camera shows Pasolini's innovative style and encapsulates the plot in a nutshell; there is joy, dismay, horror and acceptance, presented in a matter of seconds.

The camera-work as a whole, much of it handheld, is generally something to behold throughout, particularly on this Blu-ray, a wonderfully crisp transfer of the original print. Eventually, when the taboo is broken physically by Oedipus and his mother and earlier, as father and mother are themselves making love, Pasolini allows his camera to drift behind their shoulders like a peeping Tom, a comment perhaps on his audience, caught in a moment observing something which society says they shouldn't, on more than one level. It's as close as the director gets to saying something relevant about the material he has chosen to engage with.

Certainly the finale - at well under ten minutes not an act, but an afterthought - does little but point out Pasolini's clumsiness. If the main plot had been cleaner of method, presented with more to say, applicable to 'modern times', would Pasolini have needed to revert back to the present at the end of his film? Pasolini speaks in the booklet of wanting to make the story 'of all history... a-historic', but a great storyteller can accomplish this without literally moving the story around various - sometimes fictional - historical settings. At the very least the jump in the finale is one jarring jump more than this story can stand.





Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

Oedipus Rex is released in the UK on Monday 24th September

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