hats of the damned: pasolini’s oedipus rex

I suppose I came to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film version of Oedipus Rex hoping that it would work with the meaning I had gotten out of the play, which I analyzed in some depth a few weeks ago. My conclusion was basically that Sophocles’ original play works best if we think of it as a parable about the sin we do unknowingly and the dangers of knowledge.

Pasolini’s film, however, doesn’t really focus on these aspects, or at least not in any way I can tell, and I’m kind of unsure what to make of it overall. The movie’s major innovation is that it begins and ends in 20th century Italy. In some early part of the 20th century (I can’t figure out what year exactly this would have been), Pasolini shows us a young military man who is jealous of the attention his wife pays to their infant son. Shortly, the setting changes to ancient Greece and tells us the traditional story of Oedipus in chronological order (as opposed to the play, where Oedipus is already king and we only learn of his true back story through exposition). Then, where the play would end with Oedipus blind and shamed, the movie magically transposes the same actor to 1970s Italy, making him a blind beggar.

The lesson would seem to be that we ought to regard Oedipus’ story as timeless and just as relevant today as it might have been to ancient Greek audiences. And yet, if this was the director’s intention, he was at pains to make it very hard for us to identify with the ancient Greeks we see. There are a few reasons for this, but the one you feel as you watch the movie is the production design, which is a fancy way of saying that people wear a lot of funny hats in this movie.

Before I get to that, though, I ask you to consider this screen shot, taken from the scene where Oedipus slays his biological father:

That broad, flat thing in Oedipus’ hand, which he’s about to kill dear ol’ dad with, is actually his sword — surely the only one outside of the Nerf line of products that has a rounded tip. If this sword was meant to look like a youcanguesswhat (and it’s hard to imagine that nobody on set didn’t realize it did), the symbolism is just too obvious.

To be clear, besides for the hopelessly phallic, I love adventurous production design. I think it shows daring and imagination, and I love how Baz Luhrmann and Joe Wright (for some 21st century examples) use costumes and sets that are vividly foreign and weird. The point I’m trying to make here is that ancient Greece feels more remote from our lives because the costuming is so outlandish, and that effect clashes with the idea that Oedipus’ story is timeless.

If Pasolini didn’t understand this, he didn’t understand the aesthetic dynamics of his own movie. If he did, and he meant to create this unresolved tension within his movie, he’s brilliant.

Anyhow, a gallery of the aforementioned hats:

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