Pasolini’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.
There’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.
So 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.