Ovliakuli Khodzhakuli: Oedipus (Edip), 2004

reviewed by Michael Rouland© 2006

In his film debut, Ovliakuli Khodzhakuli takes on the rich story of Oedipus and his tragic fate. The classical theme is not surprising here, since Khodzhakuli is one of the most prominent theater directors working in Central Asia today. On stage he has presented European plays, such as Shakespeare’s King Lear and Oscar Wilde’s Salome. At the same time as these recent Russian-language standards, he has brought a particular Central Asian reading to the stage with Sultan Raev’s Kyrgyz translations of Seneca’s Oedipus, Euripedes’ Medea, Alisher Navoi’s Ecumenical Dance (Raqsu Samo), and Raev’s original play Bars-beg (Barsbek).

Oedipus opens with a score akin to an operatic overture. Khodzhakuli sets the stage in the classical music tradition: the orchestra prepares itself and the audience for the show. Khodzhakuli’s lens focuses on the desert in long and medium shots as Oedipus and Jocasta enter the screen carrying bales of wheat and dressed in coarse burlap. Initially, this is a jarring rendering of ancient Greek life for the viewer, and the central characters arrive at an absurd and deconstructed tent in the desert. Khodzhakuli provides a theater in open air, in a place of desolation. It is as if a Greek amphitheater had been transported to the Central Asian desert without its audience. At other moments, the text contradicts the visual experience: what royal family would end up here in this post-apocalypse landscape? Has their depravity led them to such bleakness? Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex (1967), filmed primarily in Morocco, serves as the model. But Khodzhakuli ignores the architectural sweep and his seems to be a pale reflection of Pasolini’s film.

The location is refreshingly obscure for a recent Central Asian film. No national myth is put forth; there is no obvious political agenda. Given Khodzhakuli’s professional background, this should not surprise us. This Turkmen director works primarily in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and has chosen universal rather than national themes. Oedipus is performed in the Kyrgyz language, but the location could have been anywhere in Central Asia. Any expected allegorical critique of Niiazov as the Turkmenbashi is tenuous at best.

Khodzhakuli’s film retains strong theatrical elements through his use of Seneca’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Seneca’s version of the Oedipus parable is an intriguing choice. Seneca’s text has often been interpreted as a Roman version of opera, designed for an audience of educated and initiated viewers rather than for passive entertainment-seekers. Khodzhakuli clearly follows in this mold. While Seneca was celebrated during the Renaissance, he has largely been ignored in the modern era. In his Seneca in Elizabethan Translation (1927), T.S. Eliot wrote: “No author exercised a wider or deeper influence upon the Elizabethan mind or upon the Elizabethan form of tragedy than did Seneca.” [1] However, Seneca’s tragedy was not purely designed for stage performance since it tended toward the ridiculous or absurd. This challenge invites a film adaptation, since a director can achieve more illusions through montage than conventional theatrical machinery allows.

Khodzhakuli not only adapts Seneca’s text but also adopts some of his stylistic techniques. Seneca tended to exaggerate the emotions of preexisting dramas through stichomythia, the interplay of short dialogue and long monologues. T.S. Eliot continues: “In the plays of Seneca, the drama is all in the word, and the word has no further reality behind it. His characters all seem to speak with the same voice, and at the top of it; they recite in turn.” (Eliot, p.54) This tendency is sustained in Khodzhakuli’s film.

While retaining some elements of the original text, Khodzhakuli takes great liberties with Seneca’s reworking of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Seneca expected his audience to be familiar with the story, and he begins his play with the anticipation that Oedipus will learn the reason behind the plight of Thebes. The famine and plague have been caused by the cruel fate that led him to kill his father and marry his mother. Seneca worked his play around the centrality of Tiresias and his extispicium (examination of animal entrails). Khodzhakuli moves forward and backward through the narrative timeline, shifting from a blind Oedipus to his cohabitation and sex with his mother, to the killing of the Sphinx, to the vengeful image of his father. A basic chronology is established as the film shifts from monochrome to color―the monochromatic memory of Oedipus’ past and the vibrant reality of his blinded exile. Cinematically, Oedipus’ blindness is set against the only beauty in the film. Bright colors, verdant grasslands, and mountains appear in contrast to the blindness that releases the curse.

Another striking obviation in Khodzhakuli’s film is that only two actors carry the play. While the director has a brief cameo as Laius, the film is led by Anna Mele as Oedipus and Dzhamilia Sydykbaeva as both Jocasta and the Sphinx. From a filmic point of view, this spartan cast with just two actors, a director, a camera operator, and a make-up artist is remarkably successful. There is, however, a visual monotony and heavy reliance on text that places a burden on the viewer. It comes across as too obscure and modernist, recalling film adaptations of Stravinskii’s Afternoon of a Fawn.

The clearest deviation from the original in Khodzhakuli’s variation is the exaggerated play with sex and the “Oedipus complex.” In addition to the emphasis on Oedipus’ carnal relationship with his mother, Khodzhakuli inserts himself into the narrative by expanding upon the paranormal encounter with Laius in the underworld. This scene in the third act is one of Seneca’s key narrative innovations from Sophocles. In Seneca’s play, the return of Laius’ ghost represents the corruption of nature and an allegory of sexual tension:

O savage house of Cadmus, always delighting in kindred blood: shake the thyrsus,
rend your sons with god-given hands, rather than this! In Thebes the greatest
crime is the love of a mother. O fatherland, you are not ravaged by the god’s
anger, but by a crime. It is not the unwholesome breath of the scourging south
wind that harms you, nor the dry exhalations of a land too little watered by
heaven’s rains, but a bloodstained king, who as the prize for his cruel murder
claimed his father’s scepter and taboo marriage bed.

Seneca reveals Laius’ horror at the perversity of the act, wanting to lead the revenge himself against his son. When Khodzhakuli as Laius dances naked around the fire and desecrates a melon, however, this viewer wondered if the director went too far in his own re-enactment of Seneca’s bizarre Laius incantation. Rather than condemning Oedipus, Khodzhakuli seems to celebrate the sexual perversion of the story.

Despite the liberties of his screen adaptation, this is a promising start for Khodzhakuli. I expect that in the future he will further exploit the film medium and move away from his more theatrical rendering here. As it stands, this is a film for theater aficionados familiar with Mark Weil’s Theatre Il'khom in Tashkent and the Moscow Arts Theatre. And, corresponding to the austerity of the production, the film is brief. It is a credit to the Open Society that it supported a film as experimental as Khodzhakuli’s Oedipus.

Michael Rouland (Havighurst Center, Miami University)

1] T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917-1932 (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932): 51.

2] John G. Fitch, ed. and trans. Seneca IX: Tragedies II (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004): 71-72 (lines 626-635)..

Oedipus, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, 2004
Color, 58 minutes
Director: Ovliakuli Khodzhakuli
Screenplay: Ovliakuli Khodzhakuli
Cinematography: Aibek Dzhangaziev
Art Director: Mariia Soshina
Music: Redzhepa Allaiarova
Cast: Anna Mele, Dzhamilia Sydykbaeva, Ovliakuli Khodzhakuli
Executive Producer: G. Tolomushova
Funding Sources: Open Society – Budapest

Ovliakuli Khodzhakuli: Oedipus (Edip), 2004

reviewed by Michael Rouland© 2006

Updated: 08 May 06