The box copy for “Medea” reads, “In this haunting tale, Medea sacrifices everything to win the heart of Jason, captain of the Argonauts, but when he spurns her love, Medea exacts a scorching revenge that destroys everyone in its path.”
Sounds action-filled, right? And there is some action. But if you’re thinking this sounds like fun, like another “Jason and the Argonauts,” you’ll be sorely disappointed. “Medea” is an art-house film, in every respect. It’s Pier Paolo Pasolini’s interpretation of Euripides’ famous play, which was first performed in 431 B.C. It’s not aimed at a general audience, but at the kind of people who appreciate not only Greek tragedy, but also poetic turns, heady philosphizing, convoluted storytelling, and a pace that’s driven as much by the characters’ emotions as it is by their actions.
If the goal of art is to make the viewer see things in a different way, then Pasolini has succeeded. More than Hollywood “histories” like “Jason and the Argonauts,” Pasolini’s “Medea” feels ancient, authentic. Missing is the kind of contemporary soundtrack that’s intended to rouse emotions, and the kind of costumes that look as if they came right out of Cecil B. De Mille wardrobe closet. There’s also very little dialogue in this film, which liberally alters Euripides’ narrative structure.
Euripides’ play began with Jason already living in Corinth with the “barbarian” Medea, a sorceress who captivated him, and by whom he had two children. In the play, Jason leaves Medea to marry the daughter of King Creon and improve his social standing. What follows is the stuff of Greek tragedy. Medea is the tale of a jilted woman whose revenge could only be brought about by a fierce woman, a mad woman–barbarian or “civilized.” She kills. And kills. And killing, as we see in an opening that will remind contemporary viewers of Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” is a part of her people’s culture, their belief system. That opening sequence has a young man selected for sacrifice, painted in ritual fashion, strapped to a cross, then knocked unconscious and brutally hacked to pieces, his blood distributed to eager adults and children who hold out their bowls so they can then wipe that blood on the leaves of their plants to ensure a bountiful harvest.
Pasolini gets around to all that, but in the second act of his screenplay. The first act introduces the Centaur (Laurent Terzieff) as he talks to young Jason, whom he rescued during a purge in which Jason’s uncle seized the throne from his father. Jason is the rightful heir, and the Centaur lays the philosophical groundwork for the film with his musings on life: “There is nothing natural about nature,” “Everything is holy, but holiness is also a malediction,” “Perhaps I’m too much of a liar for you . . . or too poetic.”
Jason (Giuseppe Gentile) leaves to demand the throne from his uncle, but as the Centaur predicted, he was told that first he must go and bring back the Golden Fleece that is tied to his family’s line. And so he goes, he marauds, he meets Medea, and the second act takes up the Euripides’ narrative and themes.
“Medea” premiered in 1969, and at the time Maria Callas, whom Pasolini cast in the title role, was an internationally famous opera singer. It was daring to cast a singer in a non-musical role, and in a role for which she has very few lines. But Pasolini liked her look, and indeed she brings a presence to the role, a dignity to the barbarian that Euripides himself hinted at.
Filmed in Italy, Turkey, and Syria, “Medea” shows us landscapes that few films do. And it covers much different terrain that we’re used to seeing in films of the ancient world. I liked it, but it requires a good deal of thought and consideration. With the Centaur taking on two forms, old and new, we’re asked to consider the relationship between myth and reality, and his earlier declaration that “Only those who are mythical are realistic.” We’re asked to consider the implications of “barbarian” vs. “civilized,” and understand the depths of pain and sorrow that would cause a human being of any kind to do the things that Medea did–things, I might add, that are still being done today by estranged couples.
Richard Burton wrote that Callas wanted him to play Jason opposite her, partly because she was so distraught that Aristotle Onassis left her for Jackie Kennedy. Barbarianism aside, who better to play the part of Medea than a woman who was in the same situation? Perhaps that’s one reason why, without needing words, Callas enables us to realize the depths of Medea’s ancient world . . . and her equally ancient self.
Given the Mediterranean sun and the film’s age–1960s color stock hasn’t fared well over time–I expected a disaster, but that’s not the case. There’s grain throughout, but not as much as I thought there would be, and washed-out frames, though not as many as I anticipated. It’s a soft-looking print, though, when that sunlight does its thing, and black levels and colors seem to ramp up with some of the interiors or natural-lit scenes devoid of bright sun. You get some nice detail on the costumes and hair in close-ups, and the arid desert and stacked cave dwellings give a “Star Wars” Tattoine look to it at times. I didn’t see any major problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, except from an attempt to reduce noise around the edges at times. Otherwise, as I said, I was surprised at the decent video quality, given the circumstances. “Medea” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is decidedly unspectacular, what appears to be a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono that’s as unremarkable as the sound of one hand clapping. Since Medea was shot in multiple languages, some of the lips are out-of-synch with the dialogue, but you soon adjust to that. And I’ve been thinking about this. I believe that the Mono actually works better with this film, given Pasolini’s realism, than a robust, multi-channel track. It seems more primitive and haunting in Mono.
Aside from the trailer there’s only one bonus feature, but it’s a good one: a 92-minute biography of Maria Callas from Tony Palmer that was broadcast in the UK in 1987.
“Medea” is only for an art-house audience, but those who want to feel and poetically experience the ancient world might also find this odd film worth watching, at least once. Pasolini took the line “only those who are mythical are realistic” as his guiding principle, and gives us the most realistic (yet poetic) evocation of the ancient world in fictional film that I’ve seen.