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.

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maybe oedipus’ real problem is nosiness

I don’t think I find mythology worthwhile for the same reasons as most people. Often I don’t “get” myths, if I may sound like an ignoramus for a second. But that’s just the starting point for me; if I can’t understand them at first, I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and consider what they might be a metaphor for. This is the spirit in which I read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex recently.

photo by Madeleine Burleson under cc

It starts out with a plague in Thebes, where Oedipus has been king ever since he saved the city from the sphinx and took queen Jocasta as his wife. Pretty quickly, we learn that the cause of the plague, according to the oracle, is that the city is suffering from “pollution” in the form of the man who killed the previous king, Laius. Get rid of this guy and the city will be back in business. The rest of the play consists of Oedipus interrogating people who may have information on who this terrible man could be. (For what it’s worth, I read the David Grene translation from the series of Greek tragedies edited by Grene and Richmond Lattimore.)

I’m just beginning to wrap my head around Aristotle’s Poetics, so I’m not even going to use the phrase “fatal flaw” in this post, and besides, it’s more fun to come to these things with no ideas on what you ought to be looking for. But even if I can’t define “fatal flaw” exactly, I think it’s only natural that I’m looking for some significance — a mistake Oedipus makes, a character trait that damns him — that explains why he is so totally screwed. I want to get to the why of the art just as much as the who and what.

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