DVD Review: OEDIPUS REX (1967)

Freud was right about Oedipus. Perhaps the famous neurologist was just some crazy Austrian guy who did altogether too much cocaine, but he was right to say the ancient Greek myth contains a universal truth, if maybe not the one he imagined. Oedipus Rex, from Pier Palo Pasolini (the Italian director best known for the notorious Salò: 120 Days of Sodom) is a fairly straight retelling of the legend from Sophocles's play, about the boy who grew up to unwittingly kill his father and marry his mother. But Pasolini's genius stems in large part from the idea backstabbing, double-dealing, murder and incest are the less interesting things going on here.

Oedipus Rex is a gorgeously theatrical production that still proves visually stunning more than four decades on, and despite the odd lapse into unintentional comedy there's a powerful meditation on the consequences of hubris simmering just beneath the surface. At some point we all decide we're better than our parents - we do better, know better, deserve better - but if we rush straight into trying to prove it without thinking things through that same impulse can easily prove our downfall. Then we get older, look back on the younger generation and decide they've got it in for us; hey, we were just the same, right?

Salò's horrors are widely accepted as an attack on the way the fascist government in Italy brutalised its youth, and while there's nothing remotely as savage in Oedipus the opening feels like a kind of foreshadowing of that anger. We open on a young couple and their new baby in Italy some time before the horrors of the second World War, and the sight of the paternal authority figure in military uniform - silently denouncing his son for the way he'll ultimately steal his wife's affections - is a chilling bit of symbolism against such a pastoral backdrop. The summer looks like it could last forever, but we know better.

Then Pasolini switches to ancient history, or a boldly stylised version of same, as the King of Thebes has his newborn son cast out into the desert for fear he'll grow up to usurp his father's place. The servant told to kill the baby can't do it, and hands him over to the royal house of Corinth to be brought up as their son. Several years later, again the young Oedipus (Franco Citti) hears the prophecy he's going to murder his father and become his mother's lover. Driven mad by the idea, he wanders off into the desert to try and escape his destiny but things don't quite work out the way he plans. A few minor details get left out, but if you don't know the myth a quick glance at Wikipedia will spoil this one for you.

Pasolini imagines ancient Greece as a strange hybrid of pastoral idyll and sandblown wilderness, with filming taking place in the Tunisian countryside and Moroccan deserts. It's not exactly a seamless vision but it's plainly not supposed to be, with exaggerated costumes for the principals; towering headgear, strange, inhuman armour and outsize, almost childlike swords and spears. It's realism of a kind, with people caked in dust and sweat and an emphasis on scale and distance, yet wholly artificial at the same time, as if the director corralled a crowd of native extras, led his cast and crew to some ancient monument and just started filming off the cuff.

It works, either way. The theatricality feels wholly appropriate, never forced, underpinning the sense this is myth-making rather than intimate drama. And the scenery is frequently phenomenally well shot, with sequences like Oedipus stumbling away from the oracle through the crowds or trekking across the wilderness absolute marvels of composition, breathtaking imagery you could easily imagine as a painting. While the audio is a minor distraction (recorded in post, as it was for most Italian films of the period) the production values, while not really timeless, are still legitimately stunning. Pasolini and his crew repeatedly excel themselves.

The narrative has to work a little harder to overcome the idea this is a done deal. After all, if we know what happens in the end what's to keep us watching (other than all the pretty pictures)? It's hard to get invested in these characters given they're plainly not people, more walking manifestations of bull-headed pride. Yet the slow, measured pacing proves quietly effective. There are moments of "Oh, Christ, I'm in bed with my mother", but they're silent, internalised, adding to the rising tension that comes from realising Oedipus will not be told what to do - that like so many of us when we were younger, he hates and fears the idea anyone might know him better than he knows himself.

These quiet, wordless moments are the most effective, to be honest. While the cast do some good work overall the dub sometimes fails to capture what the actor seems to be trying to convey. When the blind seer Tiresias (Julian Beck) gives the adult Oedipus the Big Reveal, say, while Beck seems suitably distraught the Italian voiceover just sounds bored. And while Franco Citti has star presence, some of his emoting hits the mark dead centre but other scenes (not least his final speech) tip over into farce - more hysterical yelling than anguished self-recrimination.

This is a magnificent film, for all the occasional bouts of over-ripe melodrama - possessed of a quiet grandeur that barely dates at all, and a measured storyteller's voice that uses shocks or taboo content to reinforce the message and the subtext for the viewer who wants to dig them out, rather than just plain titillation. Pasolini does play things too broad now and again, stumbling into camp rather than grand gestures, but his film is never less than visually captivating and the way he finds contemporary relevance in a story more than two thousand years old still feels like watching a master at work, for all his minor slip-ups.

THE DISC:

Eureka's UK release of Oedipus Rex (a.k.a. Edipo Re) available to buy now, is a new addition to their renowned Masters of Cinema series. The film is available as a BluRay and DVD combo or separate DVD, but there are apparently no differences between formats other than a 1080p transfer. The DVD loads from the opening logos straight into a simple menu based on the cover artwork, which is clear and easy to navigate. The film has been divided into fourteen chapter stops. The only extra on the disc is the original trailer (the retail version comes with a specially commissioned new booklet of notes and essays).

VIDEO:

Eureka tout their release as featuring a "gorgeous new HD restoration in the original aspect ratio", and while the picture on the DVD obviously can't live up to 1080p it's still largely an impressive piece of work. The image is still predictably a tad soft, with a moderate amount of grain and flickering, and some night scenes are frustratingly dark. But the amount of detail in well-lit areas is fantastic, especially on static close-ups, with little if any banding or blocking. Colour balance is also clear and striking, showing off those jaw-dropping compositions to great effect. It bears mentioning, too, that Pasolini and DP Giuseppe Ruzzolini set up their camera so well the dark sections aren't that much of a pain - you can always see what you're meant to be looking at. While the DVD might lose some of its impact on a very large screen, on a regular monitor this is still some very sweet eye-candy.

AUDIO:

Audio is less impressive, though this is hardly Eureka's fault - the soundtrack is perfectly legible, but the original mono doesn't carry too much weight and does have a slight fuzzy edge to it. The score is by far the weakest part of the film, not bad but more minimal atmospherics on wailing flutes and clattering percussion than anything immediately memorable, none of which should strain anyone's speakers. The English subtitles are new to Eureka's release, and while I can't vouch for their accuracy they flow very well and are large, clear and free from grammatical or spelling errors. The subs are not removable as such, but you can choose to watch the film without them from the opening menu.

Oedipus Rex may not be the best-known film in Pasolini's canon, but it deserves greater acclaim just taken on its own merits. This is an outstanding piece of cinema, despite some minor flaws - for all it lapses into farce now and again the sheer artistic impact in a film more than four decades old, the unexpected subtlety behind the broad dramatic strokes of the plot and the haunting impression it leaves the viewer with qualify this as essential viewing. Eureka's new release, while lacking in extra material, gives the film an excellent transfer that affords it great respect - even on older, standard definition formats. Should you want to check Oedipus Rex out for yourself Eureka's DVD is a great way to do it. 
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