Inside the debate on cinema and literature, particularly on cinematographic adaptations of literary works, the name Pier Paolo Pasolini inevitably has great relevance. Eclectic artist, critic, poet, and distinguished expert of classical languages he was, in fact, among the very few post-war artists capable of producing both arts (cinema and literature) obtaining results of great international impact. In regard to adaptations, one of his most significant intents was a ‘simultaneous reinstating and questioning the central tropes of his culture’ through the meeting of the two artistic spheres, making sure to reshape a particularly literary work in order to ‘construct (…) a new and schizoid narrative structure through which the history of modernization could be written.’ Oedipus Rex (1967) is a primary example of how Pasolini tries to conceptualize and represent ‘the ‘event’ of modernization as if it were a myth’ through a text able to pierce and shape a new contemporary meaning based on the author’s contemporary society. The peculiarity of this Pasolinian reworking lies in the fact that the author measures himself with a text written during the Fifth Century b.C.: the myth of Oedipus The King narrated for the first time by Sophocles in the homonymous tragedy. In his movie, Pasolini raises the concept of film adaptation to admiration for the work chosen, proposing that any system - literature, poetry, or cinema - offers unique elements that can only be elevated and reconsidered through the influence between them, which leads to new considerations and paths through which the author can to penetrate more deeply the intrinsic meanings of the works themselves. The fame of Oedipus’ story is, in fact, due to the appropriation of it by the Father of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, but at the same time, the influence it had on the artistic-literary activity of the centuries following the debut of the Athenian scene is witnessed by the innumerable quantity of rewrites, reconstructions, and recontextualizations to which the story has been gradually submitted.
The Sophoclean hero, then, interests Pasolini because he intends to use it as a key to revising contemporary reality: ‘through the nomadic gaze of Pasolini's camera, Oedipus becomes a conduit for a mytho-historical reflection on modernization’, Cesare Casarino writes. In order to achieve this goal and create ‘both a universal and an individual dimension’, however, he chooses to approach Oedipus’ events from an autobiographical point of view: ‘In this film, I portray my Oedipus complex (…), I represent my life’ Pasolini affirms, mixing together within the film elements of extreme fidelity to the literary model (specific dialogues and narrative sequences), which alternate with innovative and actualizing elements that refer to his ideological and cultural universe. This is how the Greek myth ends up becoming a mirror in which the director can reflect on his life and his thoughts, giving the story a whole new meaning: ‘His universal application of the mythical and its symbolic impact in the process of shaping reality through a film made Edipo’s own story a personal (particular) manifestation of a (universal) myth.’ Using elements that characterize his personal life, he finds himself dealing with the issues that derive from contemporaneity by redefining the figure of the intellectual inside the modern world.
There is a clear contrast that characterizes the film: on one hand, there is the maternal universe personified by Giocasta (mother and wife of Oedipus) connected to the past, to the scenes that take place in Italy, and to the emotional sphere. On the other, there is the male and paternal sphere, in which the representations of the neo-capitalistic present, of industrial civilization, of modernity, are boxed, all embodying the stiffness of Laius, Oedipus’ father. In fact, Oedipus Rex is the Pasolinian work in which the predilection of the author for the maternal sphere is more explicit. This is the main difference with Sophocles’ tragedy: what appears most evident in the film is the parricide, a choice derived from the relationship of rivalry between Pasolini and his father. In Sophocles’ Oedipus, the clash between the main character and Laius is almost represented as a case of self-defense, while Pasolini makes sure to portray the real essence of the generational battle. Laius is authoritarian and arrogant, he sees himself standing monumental on the chariot with a huge crown on his head and, in the scene, Oedipus attacks him with an unmotivated fury, consuming a real pleasure of blood, cruelty, (…), and rebellion.’ Choosing to draw from his own family nucleus, Pasolini ‘preserves (…) this fundamental approach to representing his culture: the human is to be universalized, the individual tied to larger patterns that reflect what he considers to be universal destinies’: he aims to represent the ideal of the bourgeois family of the Twentieth century in a way that he knows perfectly, making sure that the viewers can recognize themselves into the scenes. The ‘innate competition in the bourgeois family that Freud also saw’ is described by this very personal contrast: the myth is offered to Pasolini as a very effective timeless language to speak metaphorically about his themes, in this case, the comforting country life (maternal universe) opposed to the dynamic contemporary capitalism (paternal universe).
Pasolini is able to implement this description by focusing also on the scenic setting of the story: through a sudden change of historical time, between the Prologue ('a still rural agricultural world') and the Epilogue ('a completely urbanized and industrialized one'), the viewer finds a central part that is the true narration of the myth of Oedipus but wrapped in the terrible chromatic suggestion of a Moroccan landscape, able to make the spectator experience the essence of nature in its primordial power. The chosen setting, then, has nothing to do with the typical Greek scenario, but the director transmits, in this way, the idea of an arid, archaic landscape, corresponding to his vision of Greece as a barbaric and primitive civilization. The African landscape, deprived of precise temporal space references in order to highlight its oneiric-universal quality, becomes a symbol of incommunicability, of that feeling of emptiness that the character of Oedipus will soon discover, firstly through the psychological drama of his own alienation caused by exclusion from the exclusive intimate relationship between the father and the mother, and later through the awareness of the sexual relationship consumed with his own mother. At the same time, the music used in the movie has the same symbolic value: during a 1969 interview, Pasolini justifies the choice of Slavic ethnic music describing it as ‘indefinable’: ‘I wanted to make Oedipus a myth, I wanted music which was a-historical and a-temporal.’
But the real actualization of the story and the contemporary interpretation that derives from it is suggested by the modern frame provided by Pasolini: the Prologue and the Epilogue take place in a 20th-century Italian environment, unrelated to the rest of the movie, and that contribute to underline both the autobiographical value of the story and the universality of the message. The results in a circular structure, in which from the 1922 Italian countryside the film returns to the 1960s Bologna, building Pasolini’s masterpiece on the cyclic idea of the Nietzschean ‘eternal return’ between birth and death: ‘the life ends where it begins’, pronounces Oedipus at the end of the movie. This choice does nothing more than reflect the Pasolinian will refer to the repetitiveness of life during the era of industrialization. In the opening segment, one of the first images is a sign with the inscription “Thebes' on it, but against all expectations, what appears on the screen is not the ancient Greek city, but an Italian village during war times. This is how ‘Thebes from the past (…) becomes associated with a real, historical place in the present’, providing the idea of actualization and simultaneity between ancient and contemporary reality, also suggested through the element of the verse of crickets (audible both in the representation of Fascist Italy and during the central part of the film) and representing the ‘omnipresence of something oppressive, something totalitarian in any representation of what seems to be an “untouched” landscape.’ It is always during the intro that the director alludes to the essential elements of the Freudian studies on Oedipus (both the anomalous love of the child towards the mother and the father's resentment towards the child), connecting them to the fundamental elements of his biography through images, such as his father in uniform, jealous of the strong bond between mother and son: ‘You're here to steal my role, and the first thing you want to steal is my wife,’ he says. During the intimate scene of the prologue, Pasolini sees himself surrounded by maternal protection in a dynamic and circular shot of the trees that cover almost the whole sky, and that symbolizes the desire for knowledge of the modern man, hindered by the limits of view: it is with this impediment that Pasolini stages the incarnation of his own inner odyssey and of the specific problems of his time: ‘This is what Sophocles inspired me: the contrast between total innocence and the obligation of know. It is not so much the cruelty of life that determines crimes, but the fact that people do not try to understand history, life, and reality, he affirms.
The Epilogue, instead, is a real: ‘assertion of the universality of myth’. The scene moves from the central part of the film, which takes place in Morocco, to the Bolognese contemporaneity of a ‘shown, empty, run-down, abandoned’ Piazza Maggiore. The ending brings the viewer back to the modern world, where an adult and blind Oedipus plays the flute. In addition to using the blindness to ‘chronicle the contemporary man's own destiny’, he also uses the sound of the instrument to trace the journey of his own poet's history, summarizing his past as an artist and intellectually castrated by the division of classes of his time: ‘I shot the epilogue in Bologna (...) the city where I found myself naturally integrated into bourgeois society; (...) with disenchantment, then, Oedipus leaves behind the world of the bourgeoisie itself and it is more and more in the popular world, of the workers (…), of the exploited class. ‘ The adult Oedipus, who returns to familiar places and to his birthplace, represents the middle-class world, followed by the industrial one, made of shabby neighborhoods and factories. This theme of returning to one’s place of origin, with which the film ends, marks an important difference with respect to the Greek models: in the tragedy, in fact, precisely in Oedipus at Colonus, the protagonist is assumed among the Gods with the function of protector of the city of Athens. Pasolini's choice, instead, contributes to giving meaning to the director’s hermeneutical perspective: the figure of Oedipus is characterized as the man who knows his destiny from the beginning but fights against its realization, not accepting the awareness of his wrongdoing.
Building around Sophocles’ text a Prologue and an Epilogue set in contemporary times, in the places of his childhood and adolescence, Pasolini loads the figure of Oedipus with a sense of confusion that goes beyond the dismay of the tragic hero and overcomes the evocation of the personal Oedipal case. Thus, starting from the obscure sense of death inherent in Sophocles’ text, the story of Oedipus becomes the emblem of the Western human condition: a life blinded by the desire not knowing, of ignoring the truth. Being an innocent victim is the trait that unites Oedipus with the characters of Pasolini’s previous films with the sub-proletarian setting. Oedipus as Accattone (in the homonymous movie), Ettore (in Mamma Roma), and Stracci (in La Ricotta) are all beings who roam unconsciously through their lives, consuming their existence without being aware of it, transported by a tragic destiny looming over them. A key scene for the economy of this concept is the meeting between Oedipus and Tiresias, who appears twice in comparison to the Greek model: the first time just before facing the Sphinx, the second time after Laius’ homicide. The novelty introduced by Pasolini is that the blind prophet also assumes the artist's traits: he is a singer and poet who, even in his marginality, loads himself of the burden of narrating ‘the pain of the world.’ In this characterization, more than ever, ‘the myth, for Pasolini, resonates in modern experience’: the director uses Tiresia to show the inability of Oedipus to grasp the truth. The protagonist, furious at the oracle’s words, whose meaning he does not understand, takes off the crown and beard (the symbols of power inherited from Laius) and attacks him physically (on the contrary, in Sophocles’ version there is only a verbal attack). The director illustrates the psychological resistance of Oedipus to understand and accept the truth, and the whole theme (already present in Sophocles) of the contrast between truth and appearance. The final sequences make clear that Tiresias is a biographical projection of Oedipus, where, as said earlier, Oedipus appears blind and a flute player, just like Tiresias.
It is, therefore, the attitude of closing the eyes in front of their own condition that unites Oedipus with the Twentieth Century Man: identifying himself with Oedipus, the archetype of this blind humanity, Pasolini recognizes that the age of innocence is now concluded and that an intellectual cannot nurture hope through the artistic creation of another world, but has the task of dissecting the crudity of relationships inside the society he lives in. The true story of the film is therefore the one narrated through the frame and not within the picture: it is the story of a poet whose ideological choices arise from the personal events of childhood. Here lies the deepest meaning of Pasolini's adaptation: the definition of the contemporary intellectual poet as the uniqueness of wisdom and scandal, in an explicit autobiographical dimension that unites all men and artists, as the myth of Oedipus strengthens more than never the paradox according to which ‘the life and singular destiny of an individual are actually parts of our universal experience.’