E1 Entertainment // 1969 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge P.S. Colbert // January 29th, 2012
A movie about a woman who beheads her brother, stabs her children, and sends her lover's wife up in flames. For Maria Callas, it's a natural.
Mellifluous soliloquies. Folklore. Classical music. Vast plains of uninhabitable, sun-baked earth. Orgiastic tableaux limned with homoerotic imagery. Torture. Brutality. Human sacrifice. Cannibalism. Exquisite cinematography. Excruciating detail. Welcome to Pasolini country.
An enigma among enigmas, Italian born writer-director Pier Paolo Pasolini seemed to delight in contradictions. Famously tagged by New York Times writer Guy Flatley as "The Atheist Who Was Obsessed With God," his cinematic works regularly rank amongst the medium's most admired (The Gospel According To Matthew) and abhorrent (Salo, or The 120 Days Of Sodom) achievements.
The lightning rod filmmaker's 1969 adaptation of Euripides' ancient Greek tragedy -- first performed in 431 BC -- casts opera diva Callas in the non-singing title role; sadly, her only film assignment. It's no stretch to say her performance in Medea is one for the ages, easily on par with the best screen work by Hepburn, Redgrave, or Streep. And yet words can't adequately describe the depth and breadth of this performance, perhaps fittingly. A great deal of this role involves silence, while the rest of it transcends the double-handicap of English subtitles and Italian dubbing. Equally unassailable is lens man Ennio Guarnieri (Swept Away), deftly blending and delicately balancing the blanched, lush beauty of Italian and Turkish locales.
Traditionalists will no doubt be pained by Pasolini's appending the legend of Jason And The Argonauts to Euripides' original plot. Likewise, audiences expecting the steroidal sturm und drang payoff of more recent screen treatments set against the same era (Gladiator, 300) are likely to be chagrined by the film's pace. Caveat emptor: Pasolini films are not for the squeamish, nor are they for those seeking instant gratification.
E1's standard definition 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, remastered from a 35mm print, more than does these artistic flourishes justice. Ditto the original Dolby 2.0 mono track, wonderfully restored to bring out the luster of Elsa Morante's score, a potpourri of tribal chants and indigenous melodies that add an effective layer of menace to the proceedings.
Extras? Forget that! Medea comes with a true bonus feature: Callas, Tony Palmer's alternately adoring and unblinking 92 minute documentary, first aired on the BBC in 1987. An excellent primer on the life and art of Opera's most revered and controversial soprano, I found watching this brilliant bio before the feature helped school me immensely, but then again, I'm a rube about matters of high art.
You are about to embark on a double-bill of unadulterated genius. Please experience responsibly.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Not Rated