In the latter half of his career, Pasolini dedicated a significant portion of his creative energies to a series of adaptations of literary classics. Oedipus Rex is the first of these films and demonstrates summarily what might have attracted to Pasolini to such projects. With this film, Pasolini uses the original Oedipus narrative as a loose framework instead of a rigorous guide for his own tale of destiny and tragedy.
Though the director does include all of the major plot points from Sophocles’ drama, the visual style of the film suggests a hodge-podge of cultural referents, drawing from artistic motifs common in Meso-American and Middle Eastern cultures while primarily shooting on location in Morocco. This amalgamation of various cultures and mythos allows Pasolini to develop a visual palette which is simultaneously familiar to the viewer as well as otherworldly or ahistorical. This creates the sense that the story is taking place outside of time, in a landscape where the psychological concepts suggested by the tale of Oedipus are rendered in flesh and blood.
In some sense, Pasolini draws on the tradition of sword & sandal epics, a style of filmmaking which was enormously popular in Italy at the time, to capture the period he is trying to evoke. Similarly, certain shots in the film are reminiscent of a Spaghetti western with the subjects of Thebes appearing in ponchos and sombreros and living in adobe huts that wouldn’t look out of place in the Southwestern corridor of North America. However, it becomes clear by studying the film’s text that while the director is intent on distilling the mythic quality of Oedipus through his images, the character of Oedpius himself is meant to illuminate the status of the character as a symbol for certain concepts pertaining to human sexuality within the field of psychoanalysis. Human sexuality remained a favorite theme of Pasolini’s throughout his career with the director taking particular interest in exploring aspects of sexuality rendered taboo by society at large. Therefore, it is easy to see why Pasolini would choose to focus heavily on the passionate sexual relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta which ultimately dooms the city of Thebes. Likewise, Pasolini is often pre-occupied with the sacred and the mystical. Though nothing overtly supernatural is witnessed in Oedipus Rex, the weight of prophecy hangs heavy over the characters, suggesting that certain destinies cannot be subverted, even by the most steadfast of protagonists.
With Oedipus Rex, Pasolini creates a perfect blueprint for filmic adaptations. Though the tragic tale of Oedipus is known the world over, the director’s amazingly inventive visual style and costuming creates a unique vision which both calls upon the audience’s knowledge of the source material while also subverting it. Pasolini presents the viewer with a vision of a past which never existed that feels so much realer and more fleshed-out than the most meticulously constructed of historical pictures. Though it lacks the overt political rhetoric which many expect from Pasolini’s works, it is among his most stunning works simply due to the quality of its images.