Times Staff Writer

It's amazing that Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1967 "Oedipus Rex" (at the Vista for one week only) is only now arriving, for it is one of the late director's finest films, infinitely superior to his tedious "Medea" (1969) with Maria Callas.

In filming Sophocles, Pasolini has been largely faithful to his source while making an ancient time and place come vividly alive. (Much of the film was shot in Morocco.) Yet in an stunning coup de cinema , Pasolini actually begins with an autobiographical prologue set in Lombardy in the '20s, in which a handsome young officer in Mussolini's militia, passionately in love with his wife (Silvana Mangano), feels nothing but jealousy for his new baby. As the man lunges at the child crying in its crib, we're yanked into antiquity and shown a peasant carrying a baby tied hand and foot to a pole. The homosexual Pasolini boldly identifies himself with Oedipus right away, even dressing Mangano in gowns similar to those of his own mother.

The baby is the son of Laius, King of Thebes, and must die to prevent a dire prophecy that declares that the son will grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. But when the peasant abandons the baby, he is found by the servants of the King of Corinth (Carmelo Bene) and his wife Merope (Alida Valli), who adopt him.

Pasolini cast Franco Citti, who played the lowlife anti-hero of his first film "Accatone" (1961), as his Oedipus. It's a casting as unlikely as it is effective. There's nothing noble in the demeanor of the scruffy Citti, but he's wonderful at expressing an Everyman's bewilderment at the bizarre twists of fate that befall him, and as the suspicion of the terrible truth grows within him, he grows, as an actor, with the role. By the finish, Citti attains true tragic stature. The pale, agelessly beautiful Mangano also plays Jocasta and is as regal (yet womanly) as any queen imaginable. (The Living Theater's Julian Beck is a delight as the prophet Tiresias, and Pasolini himself is seen briefly as a high priest.)

Shot in gorgeous natural hues, "Oedipus Rex" unfolds in its desert settings with primitive grandeur, accompanied by an extraordinary score that includes folk music from Romania and Japan plus additional music composed by Pasolini himself. This "Oedipus" has a strong ritualistic quality, and the passages of Japanese music heighten this effect, making it seem at times as stylized as a Noh drama. Pasolini was never afraid of the potentially pretentious, and this time his control and his vision were strong and sustained enough to make everything work.

Just as startlingly as Pasolini switched us from the '20s to antiquity, he abruptly brings us back to the present as we see the now-blind Citti playing a flute on the streets of Bologna, led by another Pasolini regular, the cheerful Ninetto Davoli (seen earlier as the Messenger). If we resume the autobiographical premise of the prologue, it would seem that Pasolini intended to send us home with the provocative impression that as an artist, he regarded himself as a blind man.

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