Thursday, November 30, 2023

Medea (1969)

To describe Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1969) as an adaptation of the 5th century BC play of Euripides would be a bit misleading. Pasolini uses the play as a jumping-off point. Pasolini was making a movie and movies being a visual medium he eliminated most of the dialogue, choosing to tell the story visually.

It’s the story of Jason (as in Jason and the Argonauts) and Medea. Jason’s kingdom was stolen from him. To retrieve his kingdom he has to bring back the Golden Fleece. It doesn’t enable him to regain his kingdom but he does acquire a wife, a princess (and sorceress) of Colchis named Medea.

The ambitious Jason heads for Corinth and his ambitions are about to be realised. He is to marry a second time, to the daughter of the king of Corinth. A very advantageous match from Jason’s point of view. At which point Medea takes her revenge.

This is not a story of a woman scorned. There is much more going on here.

Jason was raised by a centaur who told him that there is nothing natural in nature. This is the key to understanding the society from which both Jason and Medea come, and Pasolini spends much of the early part of the movie world-building, immersing us in an extraordinarily alien world. This is a world in which everything is understood in terms of myth and ritual and magic. There is not even the slightest hint of rationality in this world. In this world reason explains nothing; myth and ritual and magic explain everything.

If we do not understand just how alien this society is we cannot understand Medea’s later actions and we might make the mistake of regarding her as a madwoman. She is not mad. She simply views the whole of life in terms of her own culture and religion, and from her point of view her actions are not merely justified but necessary.

Medea has certainly suffered a grievous insult in being discarded in favour of a much younger woman but it is a double betrayal. By taking her to Corinth Jason tempted Medea to abandon her culture and religion and her thoroughly pre-modern pre-civilised view of the world.

There is an interesting scene that takes place shortly after Jason’s theft of the Golden Fleece. Jason’s sailors make camp for the night. Medea is terrified, horrified and bewildered when they fail to perform the necessary rituals (or what she considers to be the necessary rituals).

It’s possible that Pasolini is trying to make a point about the alienating nature of civilisation and the way it strips life of its magic and its meaning. Not every viewer is necessarily going to be in sympathy with this. It doesn’t really matter whether you agree with such a view or not. What matters is that there is a very real and profound clash of cultures and beliefs and that Medea certainly feels alienated from the more modern more civilised cultures and beliefs of Corinth. The movie still works whether you agree with the message or not.

Pasolini’s own views on culture, politics, religion and cinema seem to have been constantly changing and also seem to have been contradictory and confused. That’s not necessarily a fatal flaw in a film-maker. He can use the opportunity to work though his ideas.

Maria Callas was the world’s most famous soprano at the time but she had the reputation of being an opera singer who didn’t just sing her parts but acted them powerfully as well. She was an inspired choice to play Medea. No-one else in the movie can act at all, but that works in a way. This is not a realist movie. Pasolini’s cinematic roots may have been in realism but Medea makes no concessions to realism. The stiff artificial performances of the other cast members enhance the film’s artificiality, and also serve to focus our attention on Callas.

This is not a stagey film but that artificiality is constantly emphasised. Jason was raised by a centaur. The centaur does not look the slightest bit convincing. He looks like a stage centaur. In fact he probably looks the way a centaur would have looked in a fifth century BC theatrical performance.

The location shooting (in Turkey, Syria and Italy) is stunning. Pasolini uses locations and architecture to emphasise his points. In Colchis we do not see a single straight line. Every building, every habitations, looks like it grew out of the soil. In Corinth everything is ordered. Nothing looks organic. Everything is constructed according to perfect classical proportions.

Medea is a movie you’re either going to love or hate. It depends on whether you’re able to immerse yourself fully in its world. If you are able to do that then the film is a strange magic experience. I enjoyed it a great deal. Your mileage might well vary.

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