Medea (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969)

There are art films I don't get and am not wild about, like O Brother Where Art Thou? and Fellini Satyricon. And there's at least one art film I both get and love, Orphée. Medea is a bit different. I totally get it and I can see how well made and what a good piece of cinema it is - I just don't like it that much!

It was Euripides' play Medea that really cemented Medea as the wicked witch of Greek mythology. Evidence for earlier versions is patchy, but we know it was Euripides who had her deliberately murder her children (some earlier versions had her kill them accidentally, possibly while trying to make them immortal). Without that plot development, Medea would be a traitor to her own family, but overall a really rather helpful person to the Greeks, with divine ancestry, who was married to a hero for a while. With it, she's the quintessential wicked witch and her betrayal of her father and brother (with or without the detail of her murdering her brother as well) becomes an early sign of the wickedness that is to come. This film is a (very) free adaptation of the play, and Maria Callas plays Medea with a dangerous and slightly mad edge throughout, very effectively.

Euripides' play opens with Jason about to marry Glauce, but Pasolini goes right back, not just to Jason and Medea's meeting and romance, but to Jason's upbringing by Chiron, the centaur. There are reasons for his use of Chiron, which I'll get to in a minute, but as far as the relationship between Jason and Medea goes, I think this is pretty effective. We feel Medea's pain at the disintegration of their relationship much more when we've seen it develop from its beginning (though the sex scenes must be some of the least passionate ever comitted to celuloid! They just sort of lie on top of each other... Maybe I've been watching too much Spartacus).The way Medea keels over and faints when she first lays eyes on Jason looks rather ridiculously melodramatic, but it actually kinda works if you imagine she's been put uner a love spell, or hit by one of Cupid/Eros's arrows, as several ancient versions have it.

Maybe Pasolini was disconcerted by how many Christians loved his Gospel According to St Matthew, because this film largely depicts Medea as a religious fanatic, as opposed to the Argonauts, who all appear to be atheists and much more practical. I'm assuming Pasolini was familiar with JG Frazer, because the whole first section is pure Frazer. Chiron talks about the resurrection of the grain and how it's not needed and there is no god, accompanied by a visual that implies myth (and, by extension, religion) is a lie of childhood, cast aside when we get older. This fits perfectly with the nineteenth century anthropological view of an evolution of thought in human society, from belief in magic (and myth) to religion, to science. Then we see Medea and others crucifying a man, then drinking his blood, in a clear parody of Catholic communion, marking her out as primitive, and something of a religious fanatic (and implying that Catholicism is a relic of an earlier stage of human development).

Apsyrtos, Medea's brother, is represented as a young man here (ancient versions vary on how old he was). He's younger than Medea, so he comes across as a more-or-less innocent victim, who helps her steal the fleece because she's his big sister and he trusts her and loves her (presumably - they don't speak much). Her murder of him is pretty horrible, but the fact that he's nearly an adult and has some culpability in it - having agreed to help her steal the fleece without batting an eyelid - means this is only the prelude to the later horror, so Pasolini can build up Medea's crimes until the final matricide. The murder of Apsyrtos is also unexplained - Medea does it to slow down and distract the people pursuing them, but without the element of magic, it's a bit unclear why finding  Apsyrtos' body should stop them from continung to follow her and the Horse-o-nauts (since Pasolini filmed in the wonderfully weird landscape of Cappadocia, the Argonauts leave their Argo - which is just a tiny raft anyway - and grab some wild horses to ride to Colchis).

Pasolini does not represent any of Medea's magic as real (that wouldn't fit his theme of religion coming up against the more secular attitude of Jason). The representation of Medea's witchcraft as somthing rumoured about her by the Greek women she lives among is very effective. It's rather like the ancient characterisation of Medea in some ways. Medea is the ultimate foreigner, and her witchcraft and magic stems largely from her foreignness (and divine ancestry). The interpretation of rumours of her witchcraft as resulting from the fasincation the Greek women feel for her makes sense and works brilliantly.

The dress Medea sends to Glauce is particularly intresting. It's Medea's own 'vestments' (you know, in case we hadn't aight on to the religious metaphor yet) from Colchis. In Medea's imagination, the dress literally goes up in flames. I was expecting the real dress to kill Glauce with poison, like the dress that kills Kelly MacDonald's character in Elizabeth. But it doesn' - Glauce sees herself in the mirror, dressed as Medea, and kills herself (as does her father when he sees what's happened). Whether Medea put something in the dress - a hallucinogen or misliar - to drive Glauce mad, or whether she's relying purely on head games is unclear (she's a witch after all, so she must be using headology!). It's very effective, albeit a bit melodramatic.

Modern versions of Jason's story usually make him a little more proactive than he is in the ancient epics, and Pasolini does too, though for slightly different reasons. In Greek myth, Jason owes everything to Medea (and Hera). When he leaves her, he really is being spectacularly ungrateful. In Pasolini's version, however, she has convinced herself that he owes everything to her, but he has said outright that the fleece, outside the religious significance allocated to it in Colchis, is worthless. He doesn't owe her anything, because she hasn't actually done anything especially useful - he could have done without the fleece and ended up in the same place (and all the incidents where she saves his life and the lives of other Argonauts have been omitted). She thinks her religious rituals are accomplishing something, but he is equally convinced they're meaningless. So Jason is simply choosing to leave his former lover and re-marry - though he does still leave her in the middle of a foreign country, with the king trying to exile her from that place too, so he's still being fairly heartless.

The most famous part of Euripides' play is Medea's speech in which she agonises over what she's thinking of doing and tries to make her mind up, and during the course of which she explains the very real hardships faced by women in ancient Greece. The sympathy she asks for is somewhat undermined when she goes on to commit infanticide, but still, the speech is justly celebrated as an unusual attempt by a male writer to look at life through a woman's eyes. Here, however, Medea seems to spend very little time making her decision. Dialogue in the film is fairly sparse in general and part of the reason for the lack of speeches is that Pasolini wants to use the visual potential of film, together with the eerie soundtrack mostly made up of chanting, to get his points across. But for me, without that essential aspect of sympathy for the monster and without that insight into Medea's motives, the story is lacking something. The closest we get to sympathy or understanding for her is Chiron's description of her reverse conversion to Jason, recalled a little in her final line, 'nothing is possible any more', but this isn't much. She is too deluded and not logical enough to really inspire sympathy.

The lack of visible/audible deliberation form Medea also rather undermines the love that Euripides makes it clear she still feels for her sons. Here, we see her rock them lovingly to sleep before picking up the knife (the murder itself, in the best tradition of Greek tragedy, is not shown) but without that articulation of her feelings, she just looks, well, batsh*t crazy, really. She's always at least slightly crazy, but without her explanation of why she's doing what she's doing and how much it hurts her to do it, she comes across as so crazy she's less human, and less sympathetic - which for me, takes away from the power of the story a bit (it's also a notable departure from Greek tragedy, which is all about characters very very slowly making decisions though monologues and conversations with the Chorus. Sometimes they make discoveries, but mostly decisions).

The two Chirons, mythical and mature

This film is beautifully, eerily shot and wonderfully acted - Callas' performance is wild and captivating. Although an 'art' film, it has a clear narrative and some clear points to make, and is both comprehensible and effective. But in the end, it's just not really to my taste. Let's face it, a film which implies that religious people, and Catholics in particular, are crazies who, if you question their religion, might go mad and murder their children was never really going to be my thing, was it?!


  1. It's a pity we don't have some really old or at least non-Attic influenced versions of the Medea stories. I think Euripides' version may be the oldest extant version and it seems to me that the Athenians seem to have turned her into an evil witch, possibly for political reasons. And Euripides, of course, is his usual nasty, petty-minded self, who doesn't really believe in anything. It would be interesting to see how she appeared in Archaic or earlier myths. Probably more like Circe, I would guess.

  2. Thanks for the summary Juliette!

    I loved this movie - another gem by Pasolini. You shouldn't take the religious and political subtext too personally - this thread of the film was very much fueled by what was happening in Italy at that time, and which particularly affected Pasolini - which he was to revisit through other films to terrifying effect - particularly Salo, made a few years later.

    It's interesting to note which reviewers focus on what - I had mostly encountered discussion of this film by cinema studies/film critic types who ignore the classical foundation almost entirely and focus on the political subtext. Nice to have it balanced out!

    Kind Regards

  3. That's interesting! I must make sure I include the political context when I teach it next week. I'm teaching it as an example of adaptation from stage to screen so will be talking a lot about the staging of it in the landscape and the treatment of Euripides, but it would be worth mentioning the other side of things as well I think.


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