The Complex Case of Romanian Folklore in Pasolini's Oedipus Rex From Oedipus Rex (1967) by Pier Paolo Pasolini

The Complex Case of Romanian Folklore in Pasolini's Oedipus Rex

May 13, 2020

Written by:

Cosmin Nicolae

Edited by:

Andrei Rusu

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Across the rocky desert unfolding outside the walls of a fortified Ouarzazate kasbah, an old, scantily-clad shepherd makes his way through flocks of sheep towards Polybus’ tent, King of Corinth. He carries a crying baby, a foundling he proudly presents to the King. Polybus raises the child and declares to his court: “Behold the future King of Corinth”.

It’s the intriguing switch in narrative, scenery and discourse of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1967 Edipo Re (Oedipus Rex), a deeply Freudian interpretation of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex. As I watch it with profound reverence for its cinematic originality, in my perplexity I hear the loud and clear diegetic sound that resembles the Romanian folklore. I’m struck by the effect of its evident displacement: an archaic winter solstice tradition seemingly observed by Corinthians, who are actually Berber extras in a Moroccan desert in a film by an Italian Marxist poet and intellectual. Throughout the film, there is also a recurring Japanese Gagaku theme, as well as an astonishing scene that uses Indonesian Kecak. On a 2020-updated cultural appropriation scale the film would likely bring in a perfect 10. Yet, when in Pasolini’s hands, this striking assemblage of cultural sign, image and sound provokes a deeper analysis.

Evident Displacement

Almost in its entirety, the diegetic sound of Edipo Re is carefully mixed with traditional Romanian folk music. A tentative first sweep of the usual film databases reveals nothing about the sound track. There are no music credits. To someone not thoroughly acquainted with Romanian folklore, tracing the recordings might be an arduous task. It’s only after a few days of scouring articles, academic papers and blogs that I track the unlikely source of Pasolini’s film music: an Anthology of Romanian Folk Music released by the state imprint Electrecord in 1963, painstakingly curated by Romanian folklorist and musicologist Tiberiu Alexandru from material sourced at the Institute of Ethnography and Folklore. I find my answer on a French website edited by a small group of literature scholars, as part of a Gargantuan effort to decrypt and piece back together the complexities of Pasolini’s film. Agnès Vinas, associate professor and the website’s administrator, credits, among others, a study by Romanian Professor Dan Octavian Cepraga from the University of Padova for the key to its musical mystery.

I am left with more questions than answers. How did Pasolini get acquainted with Romanian folklore? What was the creative rationale in using a very specific pool of ethnographic recordings not just as a sonic backdrop, but as powerful signifiers in his cinematic language? What is the point of cultural collision and how is this gesture relevant to a contemporary audience?

A Realm Beyond Locality and Time

A chronology of events seems to indicate logistics as a more prosaic source of inspiration. Scouting for locations, Pasolini arrives in Romania looking for an archaic rural setting that would resemble the rugged, stark landscapes of ancient Greece. Instead, to his dismay, he finds a country in the midst of an “agrarian revolution”, a project that would seek to industrialise and systematise production under the self-style agricultural expert and up-and-coming dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu.

“I gave up the idea of doing it there, but in recompense I found some folk-tunes which I liked a lot because they are extremely ambiguous: they are half-way between Slav, Greek and Arab songs, they are indefinable: it is unlikely that anyone who didn’t have specialized knowledge could locate them; they are a bit outside history […] I wanted music which was a-historical, a-temporal.” 1 Pasolini later uses the concept of meta-history to manipulate the transition between the film’s histories. The myth, a product of history, becomes absolute and sheds historicity to exist in a realm beyond locality and time. To illustrate meta-history, one needs meta-historical signs, and here Pasolini uses the Romanian folklore to bring forth a world beyond time.

The use of music here is profound. Its diegetic nature confuses the cultural compass. It’s there as opposed to here, it’s a-temporal and anti-geographic. Its pre-Christian origins and tonal ambiguity are disorienting. In a distinctive sequence, Oedipus reaches the Oracle of Delphi to the merry tune of a pastoral dance. As the Oracle feasts on offerings, interjections from a Pre-Christian fertility ritual (Little Plough) ring out. The asymmetry should be acute and disturbing, yet the incongruity serves the cinematic, poetic purpose. The laws of diegetics are tested to their limit when Călușul (a Romanian pre-Christian acrobatic Spring ritual performed by a male group) is superimposed on a Berber drum circle.

Primordial Source of Antiquity

I’m not entirely happy with the fortuity of Pasolini’s visit and the act of “finding” music that happens to be matching the creative intent. There are next to no logistical details of his location scouting trip, but I would hazard to assume that his Romanian liaison, or fixer, whoever that might have been, had a hand in sourcing or at least alluding to the music material. One could also imagine that the Antologia record was a part of an official welcome pack gifted to select visitors to introduce them to Romanian culture - though this is only pure conjecture based on the informal knowledge of the customs and practices in the cultural field of the times.

Edipo Re is intensely psychoanalytical, it begs to be probed and prodded at with all cultural instruments. In a 2011 essay Oedipus in Transylvania (text in Italian), Dan Octavian Cepraga, Professor of Romanian Literature at the University of Padua, advances a very seductive theory that bridges eras and disciplines. He sees a thin red line connecting the work of Italian intellectuals, among which Ernesto de Martino, widely considered the father of Italian anthropology, plays a key role. De Martino investigates funeral rites and ritual lament in his book Morte e pianto rituale. Ritual weeping is a sung lamentation involving performative movements and gestures: rocking rhythmically back and forth, tearing one’s clothes, pulling hair, formulaic verses about the dead person, praises of their beauty, virtue. Ritual lament is a practice as well as an institution, in defiance of canonical norms imposed by both Catholic Church in Italy and the Orthodox Church in Romania. There are professional mourners who render their services at funerals. De Martino observes a “technique of weeping”, stereotyped lamentation formulas and patterned body movements, which “generalise” and de-historicise grieving by inducing a “dreamlike state” in the mourner. The Church is uncomfortable with the practice, its missionaries in Africa decrying the “dishonest appearance of artificial grief”.

Two chapters focus on contemporary observations of similar practices in Southern Italy and Romania-where the lamentation is called bocet. De Martino visits Romania for a month in 1955, but draws largely on existing ethnographic studies by Romanian composer and ethnomusicologist Constantin Brăiloiu on the funeral of Lazăr Boia (Lazzaro Boia)2. The chapter describes the archaic, mythical, almost pagan ceremonies, perfectly preserved over epochs. Ovidiu Bârlea, the young Romanian researcher assisting de Martino is a student of Brailoiu, who is also responsible for the recording of ritual laments on the Anthology of Romanian Folk Music which Pasolini presumably picks up in Romania. "Bocet la mama" (Lament for mother), "Bocet la frate" (Lament for brother) and "Bocet la fiică" (Lament for daughter) are used sequentially around the meeting with the blind prophet Tyresias. Romanian bocet, concludes de Martino, belongs less to folklore and more to the primordial source of antiquity, of universal heritage value.

Pasolini, notes Cepraga, is fond of de Martini’s work. At the end of Morte e pianto rituale, a photographic addendum includes images from the Boia funeral. Among photos of paroxysmal ritual “explosions” captured in Italy, they seem contiguous in their striking similarity. Gait, poise, traits, intention and clothing preternaturally identical. Further down, drawings and reproductions of lamentations and wailers found in scrolls of ancient Egypt, sepulchral art in Sicily and statuettes from Tanagra in Greece. Could this be the key to Pasolini’s creative decision? Is this the nexus that focuses all signs and nodes involved in the production of meaning in Edipo Re?

A Freudian 'Sublimation'

There is another angle to consider, and Pasolini speaks frankly about it in his conversation with Oswald Stack. He reveals his two objectives: one of a metaphoric autobiography, and one of re-projection of psychoanalysis on the myth. More so than the Freudian projection, Pasolini is inspired by the resentment of the father towards the son - that is, of his own father. The uniformed young man in the prologue is an effigy of Carlo Alberto Pasolini, a lieutenant in the Italian army with a prominent fascist leaning. The superego of the father surpassing the child is evident in Pasolini’s lyrical interpretation of the Prologue, and largely autobiographical. Pasolini also insists on the oneiric nature of the middle section, what he calls an “aestheticising dream”. In Heretical Empiricism he writes that film is fundamentally oneiric because of the elementary nature of its archetypes, habitual and thus unconscious observation of the environment, gestures, memory, dreams, and because of the fundamental prevalence of the pre-grammatical qualities of objects as symbols of the visual language. Images of our memories and dreams become subjective archetypes, communication with ourselves.

Finally, there is a political code encrypted in the film. The marginality of rituals, the periphery of cultural sign and gesture are all too evident throughout the film. From his first poems written in the Friulian language (the language of his family on his mother’s side), we can see a Pasolini leading a staunch rebellion of the province against the centre, the Son against the Father (in a Freudian universe). The Romanian language on Anthology of Romanian Folk Music, as vestigial Latin, is the foreign, idiosyncratic language of the periphery, and contrasts with the modern Italian spoken by characters in the film. The manifest poverty of the Berber extras in the film is also a blunt criticism of the North/South economic and cultural divide in Italy, something that Ernesto de Martino was also a very outspoken critic of.

The Epilogue sees Oedipus thrust in modern times, in what Pasolini calls a Freudian “sublimation”. Oedipus is a poet, he plays the pipe. He plays ancestral, confessional music, the Japanese Gagaku theme connected with the Oracle, an evocation of his primitivism. Then, disgusted by the bourgeoisie, he performs for the workers: a Russian folk tune of Resistance, learnt by Italian soldiers in Russia. A final act of rebellion against the norm, the central figure, the Father.

It’s quite revealing that Edipo Re and its Romanian folklore soundtrack have largely been overlooked by the cultural establishment in Romania over the decades since its release. For a system that relied much of its soft power on the export of “original” and “unique” expressions of folklore in jingoistic exultations, the silence here is deafening. Perhaps the subversive essence and intentions of the film didn’t sit quite right with the regime and it was never really hailed as a tribute to Romanian folklore. Indeed, the perplexing nature of this directorial approach is very likely to have gone over the heads of those in charge at the time.

Resplendent in spite of the frugality of its scenery, Edipo Re is a bewildering psychoanalytical foray into Pasolini’s chasmic poetics. Romanian (as well as Japanese and Indonesian) folklore become inscrutable characters, pseudo-antagonists and elaborate codes.

* Inspired by Pasolini’s work, I started Edipo Re:dux, an album project where I intend to engage with the legacy of Pasolini’s uniquely avant-garde gaze and attempt to translate the film's by mining Romanian folklore, traditional Japanese music and contemporary sonics.

1. Pasolini on Pasolini: Interviews with Oswald Stack (Indiana University Press, 1969), p.126
2. Ernesto de Martino, Morte e pianto rituale (Bollata Boringhieri, 2003) - from the Preface: L'incontro con Constantin Brailoiu (Romania, 1955)


*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.
About the Author

Cosmin Nicolae

Romanian-born, Berlin-based multi-disciplinary artist working in the realm of sound, image and text.

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