Maria Callas is Medea

callasPasolini’s Medea, which I saw at the very comfortable TIFF Bell Lightbox on Thursday evening, is a striking and unusual film.  Visually, throughout, it is painterly in an almost surrealistic way.  Locations and costumes combine to provide a weird and disturbing visual language which is never less than beautiful even when the most violent and brutal acts are being portrayed.  The visuals were helped by the really good job that had been done on restoring the original print.

It’s the narrative structure of the film that is really weird though.  It opens with three successive monologues from a centaur (Chiron presumably) to Jason aged 5?, 10? and as a young man.  In the last he has lost his horsey characteristics; a feature that will be reprised later in the movie.  This scene is wordy to excess but it’s followed by a long passage in which Jason takes on the quest for the Golden Fleece and sails to Colchis where we see the natives celebrating a particular brutal  fertility sacrifice.  This very long passage has maybe half a dozen sentences of dialogue but lots of grunting and screaming and some Tibetan throat singing.  That sets up a pattern.  There are very long passages in the film where Pasolini sees no need for words.

centaursThere’s another very strange piece of film making in the scene where Medea sends the poisoned robe to Glauce.  It’s a long and detailed scene starting with medea with the children and working through the presentation of the gift and Glauce being dressed by her ladies.  As is canonical, the robe starts to burn Glauce and she runs off pursued by her father until she bursts into flames and both are immolated.  Later this scene is repeated; word for word, frame for frame, until, instead of Glauce bursting into flame, she hurls herself from the battlements followed by her father.  Pasolini seems to be suggesting that remorse at her displacement of Medea is Glauce’s motive and the real cause of her death, rather than Medea’s revenge.

None of this stops Medea from killing the children, which she does by setting fire to the building they are all in.  Jason appears, distraught, and begs for the children’s bodies.  Medea refuses and the film ends.  Abruptly.

callas2So what of Maria Callas?  She’s superb.  She is so intensely photogenic and expressive that all she has to do is, well, nothing to make a huge impression but she does much more than that.  She shows herself to be a really good movie actress who could easily have made a career in that medium.

So, it’s a beautiful, quirky and disturbing film.  It’s maybe even a great film and definitely worth seeing.

5 thoughts on “Maria Callas is Medea

  1. The confusing business with the delivery of the robe reminds me of – don’t laugh – Joan Crawford in the not-so-well-known ‘Sudden Fear,’ in which we see Joan plan out a crime in her mind and then see how it plays out in ‘real’ life – some things exactly the same, some very different. After more than a few viewings, I think that’s what Pasolini is doing, but who knows? Maybe he just couldn’t (or didn’t want to) decide on a version. Narrative clarity isn’t his strongest suit. And yes, even a largely silent Callas is – what else? – stunning.

  2. I love that film; I first saw it years ago – it may even have been at the Buxton Festival where we saw two operatic versions of Medea, but I think it was somewhere else. I love the use of locations – I think the scenes in Colchis were filmed in Cappadocia, and the ones inside the walls of Corinth in the cathedral complex at Pisa, and I once found out what they used for the exterior walls of Corinth, but I’ve forgotten. But most of all I think it’s the best portrayal of the marriage of Medea and Jason that I’ve seen; as Chiron says, part of Jason still loves Medea, even when he’s planning the dynastic wedding to Glauke, and what binds them can’t really be broken, even when she kills their children. And the scene leading up to the murders is so tender, as she’s getting them ready for bed for the last time. And the final moments, when he’s begging her to come down (I’m wondering now – is she his Madwoman in the Attic?) and she cries “Nothing is possible any more.”

    I don’t find the parallel sequences confusing; I always took it that the first one, following Euripides, represents Medea’s confident planning of the death of Glauke, and the second the more subtle reality. Isn’t the first one framed by shots of her gazing into the sun (her ancestor), which I thought signalled the fact that the story was playing out in her head as she stood there thinking?

    • I interpreted the scene with the Sun as Medea steeling herself for what she had to do. She’s reminding herself that the person Jason is casting off is not some random barbarian slag but a grand-daughter of the Sun.

      • Oh yes, absolutely, but I interpret it as “Medea stands before the sun thinking through what her divine ancestor (and Euripides) would have her do, and then tries to carry it out. It sort of works.”

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