August 30, 1969 (Venice Film Festival) — 109 minutes, color, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.66:1 — Drama
Pasolini’s 8th feature, dramatically and visually stunning film about the mythical Medea and Jason.
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FILMS: Shorts and Documentaries | 1. Accattone | 2. Mamma Roma | 3. Gospel According to Saint Matthew | 4. Hawks and Sparrows | 5. Oedipus Rex | 6. Teorema | 7. Porcile | 8. Medea | 9. Decameron | 10. Canterbury Tales | 11. Arabian Nights | 12. Salo.
Pasolini’s most underrated film is this startling version of Euripides’s Medea. Its 2002 release on DVD, coupled with a major international theatrical tour of Euripides’ 2,500-year-old drama, make this is an opportune time to revisit the ultimate incarnation of the adage, Hell has no fury like a woman scorned.
In classical mythology, Medea is the priestess of the magical Golden Fleece, which brings peace and fertility to the semi-barbaric land of Colchis. She meets the dashing young Jason, who has come with his army of Argonauts to steal the fleece for his uncle, King Creon, in exchange for the throne of Corinth (which Creon stole from Jason when he was orphaned as a baby). Medea falls madly in love with the adventurer, steals the Fleece, and sacrifices everything to be with him, including murdering her own brother to slow down their pursuers. Ironically, the Fleece has no power outside of its native land, and Creon refuses to honor his promise to Jason. Euripides’s play (but only the final third of Pasolini’s film) focuses on the catastrophic events of ten years later, when Jason spurns Medea for a beautiful new love, Creon’s daughter Glauce. Medea, using her powers as a sorceress, exacts a terrible revenge upon her husband, their two sons, and everyone else he loves.
Pasolini takes a unique approach to Medea. He jettisons all but a few lines of Euripides; and begins the narrative many years before the action of the play. Most strikingly, he shoots almost the entire film in a documentary-like style (in contrast to, say, Cocteau’s phantasmagorical Orpheus). And, with a couple of notable exceptions, he creates a picture with almost no dialogue, although the soundtrack features an astonishing musical score (put together by Pasolini) of native North African wind and percussion music (20 years before Peter Gabriel’s score for Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which was clearly inspired by Pasolini).
If that was not enough to offend purists, in the title role he cast perhaps the most famous opera diva of the century, Maria Callas, in her only film appearance, and then gave her almost no lines – and the few she had were dubbed. Perhaps if audiences had known a bit more about what to expect from the film, they would have seen what was on the screen, instead of what Pasolini consciously, and often brilliantly, stripped away from his sources.
He opens with a witty prologue in which a convincing, and sexy, Centaur lectures baby Jason about his mythical lineage. So many gods and goddesses are mentioned in this breathless monologue, that the kid falls over backwards, sound asleep. (There is as much dialogue in these first three minutes as in the rest of the entire film.) After two more radical ellipses – taking Jason to age 10, then to adulthood – Pasolini plunges us into Medea’s world.
In one of the film’s most astonishing sequences, we witness, and feel, every moment of the ritual sacrifice of a muscular young man, whose blood the people of Colchis smear over the plants and trees, to ensure the continued fertility of their land. Pasolini’s artistry makes this event as poetic and authentic – using indigenous North Africans, not extras from Central Casting, to portray the Colchians – as it is gruesome. You may have read about such ancient rites in anthropology, but Pasolini depicts it unflinchingly. And he shows us, in visceral terms, exactly what kind of world produced Medea, whose revenge will be enacted years later on her faithless husband.
Throughout, Pasolini invests every shot with a haunting, ripely sensuous look, grounded in a cinéma vérité style. The film literally glows like burnished bronze, with many shots done at what filmmakers call the “magic hour,” just before sunset, which naturally provides an orange/gold sheen. The major stylistic exception is the scenes in the court of King Creon (played by Massimo Girotti, star of Visconti’s 1941 film Ossessione), where Pasolini drolly mimics Eisenstein’s expressionistic designs from that masterpiece of political intrigue, Ivan the Terrible (1943–1946).
Much of Medea’s enormous power comes from the completely naturalistic performances, ranging from the leads to the many minor characters. You can believe that this is what the Argonauts were really like, a group of mostly quiet young men, doing their jobs, enjoying the thrill of battle when the opportunity arises, and gawking at the strange sights of Colchis’s radically foreign culture. Giuseppe Gentile creates a complex Jason whom we believe a powerful woman like Medea could fall passionately in love with. He is a man devoted to his children, yet one so fickle, not to mention hungry for power, that he would throw over his wife of ten years to marry the daughter of his enemy, King Creon, as a backhanded way of regaining his throne.
Pasolini draws a monumental performance from Maria Callas, who uses her few lines of dialogue to great effect. Simply by using her face and body, Callas suggests – with a subtlety unexpected from an opera diva – Medea’s immense range of emotions, from heartbreaking tenderness to volcanic rage. We are fortunate to have her performance on film (if only we had a similar record of her early 1953 stage triumph, singing the title role in Cherubini’s 1797 opera Medea at La Scala, conducted by Leonard Bernstein).
Perhaps the best way to enjoy Pasolini’s Medea is to put aside thoughts of Euripides, and later versions by such dramatists as Seneca, Pierre Corneille and Jean Anouilh, not to mention Hollywood extravaganzas like Jason and the Argonauts (whether the fun 1963 version, with Ray Harryhausen’s special effects wizardry, or the bland TV mini-series from 2000).
Experience Pasolini’s mesmerizing film on its own starkly beautiful terms, and you’ll find a unique vision not only of the ancient Mediterranean, recreated with what feels like astonishing fidelity, but of the tortured interplay of love, desire, and unspeakable revenge, which can be as current as the latest front page crime of passion.
- Written and Directed by Pasolini
- Based on Euripides’s play
- Produced by Marina Cicogna
- Cinematography by Ennio Guarnieri
- Production Design by Dante Ferretti
- Art Direction by Nicola Tamburo
- Costume Design by Piero Tosi
- Edited by Nino Baragli
- Music by Elsa Morante & Pasolini
- Maria Callas as Medea
- Giuseppe Gentile as Jason
- Massimo Girotti as King Kresus
- Laurent Terzieff as the Centaur
- Margaret Clementi as Glauce
- Sergio Tramonti as Medea’s Brother
- Annamaria Chio as the Wet Nurse
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Original Video Release (Used for This Review)
Vanguard has created a fair transfer from the best available film and sound elements. Unfortunately, there is some softness in the image, and the color has deteriorated. There are no extra features. Still, it’s good finally to have this important film on DVD.
- Original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.66:1
- Original mono soundtrack
- $19.95 suggested retail
Reviewed November 14, 2002 / Revised October 17, 2020