Thursday, February 23, 2012

MEDEA (1969)

Pier Paolo Pasolini probably doesn't get enough credit for changing the face of movies. By applying neorealist principles to historical drama, he pioneered a grungy, naturalistic vision of the past that belied the romanticized, aestheticized look of the generic period epic. His Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) set a pictorial tone that reappeared in films as diverse as The Lion in Winter, Jabberwocky and (perhaps most apropos) The Last Temptation of Christ. At the same time, Pasolini's objective was not strict historical realism. St. Matthew includes American spirituals on its soundtrack, which as a whole is an expressionist collage of music chosen for effect rather than conventional thematic fitness. In that respect he's a peer of Stanley Kubrick, and there's a certain similarity in dispassionate tone to Kubrick in this adaptation of the Euripedes tragedy and the core myth. Pasolini would go beyond Kubrick in taking that clinical approach to atrocity, culminating in his Sadean swansong Salo. Medea is a milestone in Pasolini's development; a high-culture event that gives the St. Matthew treatment to Greek mythology and takes it to a new expressionist level of cacophonous multicultural violence. It combines the movie debut of Maria Callas, the most famous opera diva of her time -- she was known to multitudes as the object of gossip, Aristotle Onassis having dumped her for Jackie Kennedy, while aficionados lauded her singing and acting -- and some extreme gore for late Sixties cinema. It isn't the Greece most movie fans thought they knew -- it's worlds away from Jason and the Argonauts -- but it's arguably a more convincing evocation of an ancient and therefore alien world.

Pasolini starts with Jason  and the revelation from his centaur mentor Chiron (Laurent Terzieff) of his royal heritage and destiny. As Jason matures, Chiron transforms from centaur to human and informs the youth that the gods don't really exist. Still, Jason (Giuseppe Gentile) must undertake his legendary mission to take the Golden Fleece from Colchis, a land more savage than his own. This is illustrated with a fertility ritual involving human sacrifice. The victim is butchered -- we see the head separated from the trunk and the scattered limbs, and the blood is shared out among the people, who use it to anoint their crops. Medea (Callas) is a priestess here, and there's a sense that the people aren't grateful for the priesthood's bloody work. She and her brother are spit on, and the brother is beaten, so it probably isn't a surprise that she falls for Jason, helps him take the Fleece, and flees with him.
The rest of the film is what Zeus has in mind in the Harryhausen Jason when he mentions that there's more in store for the hero and his lover. They have two children, but Jason grows tired of Medea, and a vision of Chiron in both centaur and human form suggests that he can set aside the barbarian woman in favor of a civilized princess. Medea, however, is the proverbial scorned woman of unsurpassed fury. She goes all Fatal Attraction on Jason, first murdering his new bride, --we see her mental rehearsal of a fiery death for the girl, then the less spectacular reality -- and driving his new father-in-law to suicide. Then she takes their kids, kills them, and turns her home into a pyre for them and herself, though not before giving Jason the tongue-lashing he deserves at a bare minimum.

As I've hinted, there's little in the way of white marble and peplums here. Pasolini accentuates the exotic if not the atavistic side of "Classical" culture, loading the soundtrack with what we call "world music" now, ranging from African sounds to the "Bulgarian voices" that were in vogue about twenty years ago to what sounds to me much like Japanese string and vocal music. Everything seems intended to overthrow our assumption that Greece must embody refined civilization. Nevertheless, there's an epic sweep to Pasolini's landscapes and an epic sense of architecture seen from the maximum distance that still allows you to see people leaping to their deaths. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri in spite of the director's resistance to glamor.

But glamor is irresistible because the film's a vehicle for Callas, who had been so acclaimed as an operatic actress that spoken-word success seems assured. Yet Pasolini uses her more as an icon, both because her Greco-American features look right for the role and because she seemed like someone who could have or should have become a real-life Medea. This isn't really an actors' movie, and while Callas isn't bad, it's not proof on its own that she would have been a successful film actress. It's a director's film above all, unmistakably a Pasolini, and despite some stiff bits and some pretentiousness about the centaur, it's worth trying as a all-around sensory experience even if you've never heard of Callas and her tragedies.


Sam Juliano said...

Yes, for the sensory elements and for the great Maria Callas, but also because it's simply one of Pasolini's greatest films.

Truly fabulous review here.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks, Sam. I haven't seen so much Pasolini but have liked all I've seen. Medea would rank behind St. Matthew and Momma Roma among my favorites.

Anonymous said...

Great review!
"A high culture event that gives the St.Matthew treatment to greek mythology and takes it to a new expressionist level of cacophonous multicultural violence"
And it gives this treatment not only to greek mythology but also to part of Frazer´s Golden Bough. Fascinating example of how to create worlds: to take existing structures, architecure, costumes and accesoires from places as divergent as Africa, Japan,Cappadocia,Italy,North India and Central Asia to combine them in a way that has never been done before- but countless times afterwards.Time Bandits Mykene, for example.Concentrating on exploring the visual possibilities of a given story,for better and for worse.Still a great,exceptional film,can´t imagine that´s being made in another time.