Friday, September 4, 2015

MEDEA (1969)

Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969
Starring: Maria Callas, Laurent Terzieff, Massimo Girotti

The young hero Jason is charged with retrieving the legendary golden fleece from a foreign land, an animal pelt infused with magic powers. When he arrives, he meets Medea, a princess and priestess of the fleece. She falls quickly in love with the handsome, charming Jason, and decides to help him steal the fleece, betraying her father and brother at the same time — she actually kills and dismembers her brother to keep her father from following Jason, herself, and the Argonauts, all fleeing with the fleece. She and Jason settle into marriage and have children, though Jason later decides to abandon her in favor of a new bride, which will result in a favorable partnership with the Corinthian king. In retaliation, a heart broken Medea kills Jason’s bride to be as well as their sons, before burning their house to the ground.

A companion piece to Pasolini’s earlier Oedipus Rex, Medea bears much in common with the former. Like Oedipus Rex, it is a beautifully mythic film from its costumes and dialogue to its cinematography. And like Oedipus Rex, as well as several of Pasolini’s other films, including Accattone, Mamma Roma, Teorema, and Porcile, it is closely concerned with difficult family relationships and familial violence. But this is far more abstract than Oedipus Rex — with hardly any dialogue — and, in a way, more menacing and violent. A key early scene includes an elaborately staged human sacrifice, where a young man is crucified and then Medea and her countrymen drink his blood and eat his flesh. 

The centaur in the film’s opening segment is the key to understanding Pasolini’s anti-religious, post-Freudian, post-Marxist themes. Played by the beautiful Laurent Terzieff (Milky Way, Kapò), he explains to the young Jason that acts of magic and belief in gods is fundamentally irrational and almost childlike. Pasolini’s changes to Euripides’ play Medea, the film’s source material, revolve around this point. In the play, Jason cannot attain the fleece without Medea’s help and her magic and her violent, sacrificial acts are crucial to his success. Here, it seems that these acts don’t have any basis in reality and she is just delusionally convinced of her own importance and of the effectiveness of her religious rituals. I interpret these scenes in two ways: either Pasolini is depicting her belief in the supernatural and the religious as being all in her head, or magic is only real in her homeland — sort of a version of believing in a thing it makes it reality.

In this way, Medea provides an interesting parallel to Lady Macbeth, another woman who relies on violence to support her husband’s ambitious acts. While Lady Macbeth doesn’t directly practice witchcraft, her most powerful soliloquy is a plea to the spirits to strip her of her feminine attributes and prepare her for murder and violence. She literally summons Hell to aid her. In Act I Scene V she delivers her famous speech that could easily have come out of the mouth of Medea:

“Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,  
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full  
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;  
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,  
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between  
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,  
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,  
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,  
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,  
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,  
To cry 'Hold, hold!'

Maria Callas, of course, made her fame playing both of these characters and she remains one of the greatest opera singers to attempt Verdi’s Macbeth. In 1953, in the early years of her career, she allegedly learned the part for Cherubini’s Medea in just a few days, one of her great successes, and I can’t help but wonder if this contributed to Pasolini’s casting decision. The two were great friends and Callas only outlived Pasolini by two years, dying young of a heart attack. The Greek Callas also had dramatic, striking looks which match perfectly with the alluring, aloof, and mystical Medea. This was her only film role and was undertaken during a stressful time in her career, but it’s a powerful testament to her stage presence. Thanks to my grandmother, an opera singer herself, I grew up with a thorough education in opera, particularly Callas’s classics, and when I found out about this film, it was like worlds collided in the best way possible.

The success of Medea lies not only in Callas’s moving performance, but also in Pasolini’s choice of landscape, imagery, and powerful use of colors (particularly gold, black, and green). It makes me wish Pasolini had taken on an adaptation of Dune. With shooting in Italy and Turkey, many of the ritual scenes were filmed in the early Christian church ruins of Göreme, a history region of Turkey. Pasolini, who typically used nonprofessional actors, rounded out his cast with extras from North Africa who give a palpable foundation for Medea’s later profoundly isolated state as a foreigner in a Greek court. The amazing score, full of world music and eerie chanting, is one of the best in any of Pasolini’s films.

The score and the landscape serve to support Pasolini’s anti-religious themes, which make Medea out to be a sympathetic, yet hysterical figure of religious paranoia. Chiron, sometimes a centaur, sometimes Jason’s human teacher, says she is in the midst of a “spiritual catastrophe,” a “reverse conversion” that she has never recovered from. It is this sense of trauma, violence, and abandonment that allow her later actions to make sense. Calling her a woman scorned is too belittling for the sense of justice, revenge, and absolute violence that Pasolini instills in her. 

Medea will not be for everyone, but it comes highly recommended, partially thanks to this sense of gravity. Unlike Oedipus Rex, Medea is not a case of inevitable doomed fate, but the tragedy comes at the thoughtless decisions of men. Find this astounding modern rendition of one of the Mediterranean’s most violence ancient myths on joint Blu-ray and DVD from the BFI.

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