Friday, June 29, 2012

Understanding Auteurs: Pier Paolo Pasolini (Oedipus Rex and Medea)

Oedipus Rex (1967) marks an undeniable turning point in the filmography of Pier Paolo Pasolini.    Where Hawks and Sparrows (1965), for all of its virtues, felt in many ways like a tentative and somewhat awkward attempt to move forward after The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) brought the thematic concerns of Pasolini’s series of Christian films to their logical endpoint, Oedipus Rex is unmistakably a confident step into new territory for the writer-director. The black and white conflations of Christianity and gritty neorealism that comprised Pasolini’s early film works here give way to boldly colorful re-interpretations of classic myths, while primitive tribal music replaces the classical pieces used for the early films’ soundtracks.   In melding a completely new aesthetic direction with an eccentric and highly personal take on Sophocles’ legendary tale, Pasolini set a new path for his oeuvre and finally left any lingering traces of conventional Italian neorealist cinema behind him.

As if to mark Oedipus Rex as a sort of second debut, Pasolini cast Franco Citti, who began his acting career as the protagonist of Accattone (1961), as the titular figure.  Citti’s raw, plainly emotional performance played a huge role in the success of Pasolini’s first film, but his bracingly energetic work stands out even more in the context of an adaptation of a Greek legend.  The cries of rage and anguish that Oedipus periodically lets out are visceral even with the inevitable remove provided by the post-synched dialogue (which was standard in Italian cinema of the time).   Pasolini’s Oedipus is far from a stuffy, scholarly take on Sophocles; it feels immediate and impassioned in a way that few adaptations of classic literature do.  The controversial writer-director wasn’t aiming for a respectable middlebrow adaptation of a world-renowned work of art – he was out for blood.

Pasolini clearly did not take the transition to color cinematography lightly.  While Pasolini’s use of color is not as extreme as in Michelangelo Antonioni’s contemporaneous first color film Red Desert (1964), which included such bizarre sights as hand-painted trees, the vibrant sun-dried look of Oedipus Rex’s Moroccan desert locations is nonetheless a rather flamboyant change of pace from the stark black and white of Pasolini’s early films.  The writer-director didn’t start his film career as a particularly visually oriented director.  While there are some striking shot compositions in Pasolini’s earlier films, such as the headlight-lit gang rape of a prostitute in Accattone and the walking-on-water scene in The Gospel According to St. Matthew, those films seemed more oriented around their thematic ideas than their visual design.  Oedipus Rex reverses the equation, as the film plays like a series of beautiful, strange images that are supported by an elusive interpretation of a classic text.  It isn’t clear why the film, which mostly takes place in the same setting as Sophocles’ story, opens with a scene in pre-WWII Italy and closes with a scene in 1960s Italy, but the aggressively odd imagery gives the film a compelling poetic logic. 

The scene where Oedipus unknowingly murders his father and his entourage is a tour de force for Pasolini and cinematographer Giuseppe Ruzzolini, who punctuate the stabbings with blinding flashes of sunlight rather than the expected showers of blood.   But there is something interesting to look at in literally every shot, whether it is the wonderfully grungy tribal costumes worn by the cast or the impressively rugged Moroccan scenery or the inscrutable facial expressions of Silvana Mangano, who plays Oedipus’ mother.  Oedipus Rex isn’t the type of stiff, overly composed art movie that insists on its creators’ mastery.  The cinematography, for all of its beauty, retains a rough, visceral shakiness that makes the film feel like an improvised oil crayon drawing come to life.

Pasolini followed Oedipus Rex with Teorema (1968) and Porcile (1969), both of which we’ll look at next month, and then returned to Greek myth with his take on Medea (1969).  But where Oedipus Rex marked a bold stylistic departure for Pasolini, Medea feels almost like a poor man’s repeat of its sister film.  Up to this point, Pasolini hadn’t ever come close to repeating himself, each new film feeling in some way like an advancement of ideas presented in earlier works, but Medea finds the director covering the same territory as he did in Oedipus Rex without improving on that film in any way. 

There is still an abundance of extraordinary imagery (this time provided by ace cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri, working with Turkish locations), and the audio assault of esoteric African and Balkan folk music is impressive and distinctive.  Medea is too exotic to be truly dull, but Pasolini’s take on the material is tediously repetitive, awkwardly structured, and dramatically inert.  Jason (Giuseppe Gentile) is initially presented as the film’s protagonist, before the perspective abruptly shifts to Medea (opera legend Maria Callas, acquitting herself nicely in her only film role ).  Jason’s betrayal of Medea, which sets most of the actual plot in motion, happens late in the film and mostly offscreen, which makes it hard to have any sort of reaction to her violent revenge on Jason’s family.  That revenge is also inexplicably presented in two successive, barely distinguishable versions to no discernible dramatic effect.  A few of Pasolini’s films up to this point have been problematic for one reason or another, but Medea is the first one that finds the director repeating himself.

UP NEXT  Teorema and Porcile

1 comment:

  1. “Medea” (1969) by Pier Paolo Pasolini
    Medea is not only the resurrection of Euripides’ tragedy before cine-audiences of our days. It is a proof that great works of art from the past are not only relevant for our life today according to the same terms as they were perceived earlier (as a representation of tragedy as a private behavior, as a cast of human souls), but some can be relevant as a characterization of systemic norms of functioning of today’s societies. In “Medea” Pasolini classifies the forms of violence in various societies connected with one another through historical contiguity, and shows how types of violence in societies others than the one we’re born in can be taken by us much more traumatically than the violence we’re used to because it is ideologically normalized by our habitual worldview. So, when a person from a more archaic society, for example, encounters violence from a more advance society, it can put him/her in an extreme despair and fury capable of triggering intense revengeful reaction. Medea who is born in an archaic society where human sacrifice was a natural order of life and where she betrayed and murdered her own brother to help Jason to steal and run away with the Golden Fleece, wasn’t able to take Jason’s betrayal when they settled in a society which we can call proto-democratic. Here, personal betrayal because of intense fight for social success in a situation of competition for a higher place in the social hierarchy (Jason), and polite disrespect toward Medea’s suffering on the part of the king of Corinth (Cresus, the father of Jason’s wife to be), triggered in Medea nightmarish reaction of terrorist revenge.
    Pasolini found a way to make the essence of Medea’s predicament a typical experience of the age of global economy and manipulative and corrupting “interventionism” into the Third World countries. Pasolini makes a personal drama of the characters rooted in the socio-political determinants of human behavior. By thinking about himself as about a generous person helping the new-comers to succeed in his kingdom, king Cresus appeals to Medea’s good will by asking her to liberate Jason from his marital obligations because of the beauty of Jason’s and his daughter’s pure and sovereign love for one another. That’s how global corporations today build their diplomacy with the Third World countries – they insult the locals just by matter-of-factly implying that West is much more superior to the less developed countries and that it is their “right” to tell other people what to do and bribe the Eastern and Southern countries’ elites and deprive these countries of their own economic development. In this sense Pasolini’s “Medea” is a premonition of the Middle Eastern terrorism of the 21st century. By watching this film about the events which took place in the Ancient world, we feel ourselves closer to our reality today, to its psychological and cultural roots.
    Ultimately Pasolini’s film is about the semantic songs of psychological and cultural archetypes of the human history. Actors personify the hopes and agonies of universal human drives and desires with exactitude and almost an unbearably intense poetic power. “Medea” is a visual music of human emotions, an anthropological opera, existential dream of the truth of human life and death.
    By Victor Enyutin