Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Review: Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Medea"

In general, I am not terribly enamored of Pier Paolo Pasolini's work, despite his undeniable brilliance, but I sought out Medea because it stars Maria Callas, whose passionate fan I have been all my life. Maria Callas was one of the finest actresses of her age; the fact that she was also one of the greatest opera singers of all time should not diminish her equally superlative dramatic skills. It was Callas who introduced a realism in operatic acting that was both revolutionary and revelatory. Once a critic complained that Callas sounded tired in the final, tragic act of La traviata; when Callas was told of this, she felt it was a great compliment because it meant that she had conveyed the exhaustion of the dying tubercular courtesan. Callas did not merely want to produce beautiful sound - rather she had a gift for bringing even the most absurd characters of opera to vivid life. While Medea can really be considered a lesser work of Pasolini, it is the only opportunity to see Callas in a non-singing role and as such, it is essential viewing for anyone who appreciates her extraordinary artistry.

The first scenes of the film have nearly continuous dialogue as the centaur Chirone (Laurent Terzieff) explicates an unraveling series of philosophical views, but after these scenes, the dialogue is minimal. His protegee, the young Giasone (Giuseppe Gentile) goes on a quest to retrieve the golden fleece, which is held by the people of Medea (Callas), queen of Colchide. Medea is a woman whose values are fully integrated into the brutal sorcery of a culture the superstitious practice of which demands blood sacrifice. Giasone is seduced by Medea's savagery and sensuality and the two marry, but in a short time, Giasone's ambitions for a princess's hand send Medea into a fury of jealousy that can be sated only with black magic and revenge. The legend is too well known to need to alert a potential audience of her wrenching final act.

It is far too easy to demonize Medea for the infanticide of her sons, merely to revenge herself on Giasone, who abandons her for Glauce, but Pasolini does the utter opposite. While it cannot be denied that Medea murders her sons, it is not simply the logic of jealousy that motivates her brutal vengeance. After Giasone and Medea make love, Giasone once again meets Chirone, who tells him that he both loves and pities Medea, for she is a woman whose values are no longer in accord with the world, coming as she does from a culture more ancient and barbaric. Her destruction of Giasone's children and potential wife is driven by the same ancient and barbaric laws that condemn her to be forever a feared outsider. From the first frames of the film, Pasolini insists on the sacred as mundane and when every action takes on a magical significance, one that implicates every aspect of the world from the sun to the merest speck of dirt, Medea's actions take on the weight of fatalism. The final ten minutes of the film are heart-wringing precisely because she is not cruel or hysterical. She follows the dictates of destiny. To call Callas's performance in these final scenes masterful is a vast understatement.

Pasolini's enmeshing of the sacred with the mundane endows even the most seemingly meaningless actions of every-day life with a sense of dark magic, while at the same time it infuses that magic with a sense of the quotidian ordinariness we in the modern world associate with empiricism. The banality of sorcery is one of the key means of access into the ancient world, so deeply different from our own, and Pasolini is a master at granting that access. At times, Medea almost seems like an ethnographic film with its hand-held cinematography, shaky and sweeping landscape shots, and above all in the camera's unobtrusively objective eye that seems to simply capture the rituals and practices of an alien people. While in most films set in the ancient world, explanations and motivations for ritual action are carefully defined, Pasolini eschews any sort of expository device that might elucidate the bizarre ceremonies presided over by Medea. We do not and cannot clearly understand the passions that drive these characters to dismember a young man and spread his blood over the land and trees, but we feel them and are frankly repulsed.

Pasolini assumes that his audience has a firm grasp of both ancient Greek mythology and Euripides's play, just as with his Decameron, he assumes that his audience will be familiar with Boccaccio's masterwork, or as with his Il vangelo secondo Matteo, he assumes that the audience will know the Biblical text well enough to see his Marxist diversions from the gospel. It is not in and of itself negative that Medea is inaccessible, (particularly given the devaluation of the classics in modern school curricula), but it does render it hopelessly obscure. But despite the film's inaccessibility and often obtuse story-telling, Maria Callas's performance is enough to warrant a viewing, while those who appreciate Pasolini's cinema will find much to praise.

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