There is a new version of the epic of Troy currently running on the BBC in nine 1-hour episodes. It runs the risk, as in all depictions of the mythological ancient world, of making banal the potency of the stories and of the characters. On the evidence of episode one it succumbs to the dangers very readily.
Pasolini was never like this. He made a very strong version of the gospel story, The Gospel According to Matthew, before going on to tackle Sophocles’ play ‘Oedipus Tyrannos’ and Euripides’ ‘Medea’. Like his gospel, the ‘Oedipus Tyrannos’ feels very potent in its depiction of a pre-technological age in which the sense of the sacred (il sacrale) is an integral part of the characters’ world-view. But in the end the film has its disappointments. I can think of four reasons:
1 Matthew’s Gospel is written paratactically: ‘and A . . . and B . . . and C . . . etc’. This offers an excellent template for a film-maker like Pasolini so attuned to seeing the world through images, a gift he had quite as strong as that for vernacular Italian speech. Sophocles’ play is a drama of a single time and place whose story is told through flashbacks. Without inventing a lot more incident which is not in the play, there is not enough action – as opposed to dramatic dialogue – to sustain a strongly paratactic narrative. Hence Pasolini resorts to stretching incidents out beyond their proper capacity to sustain them.
2 Even though Silvana Mangano is a riveting Jocasta, Franco Citti is less well chosen for Oedipus.
He is superb as the bullying, vulnerable braggart of Pasolini’s Accatone, but Oedipus needs to be played by someone who is ruggedly good-looking and aggressive in manner while privately capable of showing inner doubt and anguish. It is disappointing too that the love-making scenes between Jocasta and first Laius and then Oedipus needed to be more passionate: the whole business seems to arouse her distaste when she should be a mixture of both erotic lust and disturbed self-doubt at the whole enterprise.
3 Danilo Donati was a noted costume-designer for Pasolini, working on a number of his films set in the past which could perfectly properly be described as costume dramas since it is Donati’s style that the garments draw attention to themselves. As a result, with some characters in the film we never get beyond the costumes, the most egregious example being Polybo, but Oedipus’ headgear in one scene is not much better.
4 The modern prologue and epilogue felt very fashionable and savant at the time. However, they add nothing new, except as a way of Pasolini artfully drawing attention to himself.
On the other hand, the oracle at Delphi is wonderfully realised.
A quality of the sacred is to be found in the desert, and there is a potent expectancy in the queue of supplicants waiting to put their question to the oracle. When the answer is delivered to Oedipus, it delivers the necessary shock both to him and to us. This is properly paratactic, even if his tearful wanderings as he tries to absorb what the answer means are not.
One good visual idea is Oedipus making himself dizzy when he has to choose which road to take in order to give himself up to chance – in the vain hope of escaping his fate when it is in fact directing chance. Fate-directed chance you could call it.