[Not a giallo, nor a particularly coherent review, but a film that could make for some interesting comparisons with Argento and that “it all depends on what you mean by reality” line]
Fearful that his newborn son Oedipus will usurp him, King Laius of Thebes leaves him in the wilderness to die. A shepherd find the baby and gives him to the childless King Polybus and Queen Merope, who adopt him as their own.
As a young man Oedipus leaves Corinth and goes out into the world. An oracle tells him that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Understandably horrified, he avoids Corinth, and eventually decides upon Thebes as a destination.
Along the way Oedipus encounters Laius, whom he kills to complete the first part of the prophesy. Arriving in Thebes, he then discovers the place beset by a monster, the sphinx, which he slays. His reward is the kingdom of Thebes and the now-widowed Queen Jocasta's hand in marriage...
When reviewing just about any other film such details would count as spoilers of the Verbal-Kint-is-Keyser-Soze variety. In the case of a classical text like Oedipus Rex, however, we're dealing with a text that the audience is surely already familiar with, even if this familiarity may extend little further than that of he's the guy who kills his father and fucks his mother type name recognition. We're also dealing with a work which, through its very status as tragedy, inherently offers no surprises, the end answering the beginning in that inevitable, predestined, fated-to-be kind of way.
As such, the key area of interest in lies in what the film-maker actually chooses to do with their source text, the degrees of reverence and violence they treat it with. And here, unsurprisingly, it is where Pasolini's genius emerges.
While the first (literal) sign we see in the film is one pointing the way to Thebes and, from the looks of it, of classical provenance, the subsequent (semiotic) signs attending the birth of Oedipus are anachronistic – a bicycle, a uniform, a farm building – and seem to establish the time and place of the action as pre-war fascist Italy.
It's a brilliant device by which Pasolini simultaneously universalises Oedipus's narrative by divorcing it from ancient Greece, yet also introduces specificities at the societal and personal levels.
In terms of the first, it establishes the possibility of a psychoanalytical reading of fascism, in line with the popularisation of Freudian ideas within Italy around this time and the emergence of countless films in which younger directors looked back at the fascist regime and the complicity – or otherwise – of their fathers within it.
In terms of the second, it inserts Pasolini himself into the story (the French histoire, with its multiple meaning, seems more apposite here, however) through obvious affinities between his own biography (he was born in 1922, his father an army officer) and that of his character and the way Oedipus's subsequent travails also become an account of his own Oedipal trajectory. Or, rather, don't:
“I have never dreamt of making love with my mother. Rather I have dreamt, if at all, of making love with my father (against the dresser in the miserable bedroom my brother and I shared as children)..." (Pasolini)
Things become even more complex as the action shifts from Thebes to Corinth. For while the North African landscapes and the figures that inhabit them may be closer to what we expect – although here we can also note the way Pasolini chooses to represent the sphinx as something more akin to an African witch-doctor than a mythological creature – this same self-consciously timeless quality again renders any attempt at an unequivocal this-is-what-it-means reading highly problematic.
This, in all its complexities and ambiguities, is in turn is where the film becomes arguably Pasolini's finest realisation of the (deceptively) naïve theories he was developing around the same time, as a “heretical empiricist” committed to “a certain kind” of “realism” whose function, in line with his preference for the “cinema of poetry” over the “cinema of prose,” was to raise questions as to how reality comes to be defined and, just as importantly, with what consequences for us all.
If Oedipus Rex is a challenging film for those used to more conventional aesthetic approaches this is thus with good reason and, in many respects, the entire point: Pasolini wants us to open our eyes to the world, even if the risk is, like Oedipus, that we may not like what we come to realise thereby..