Judge Roman Martel wonders if the Golden Fleece has golden fleas or if they hang around golden trees while eating golden cheese.
Our review of Medea (1969), published January 29th, 2012, is also available.
"Perhaps you are right. I'm still what I once was, a vessel bearing experience that is not mine."
Take an ancient greek tragedy, put a world famous opera singer in the lead role, and never have her sing as single note. Then film the entire thing like a documentary and see what happens. Director Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salo) was one gusty guy.
Facts of the Case
The tale begins with a child named Jason (of the Argonauts fame) listening to the wise words of his teacher the centaur (Laurent Terzieff, Germinal). The lecture lasts so long that eventually Jason is now played by strapping Giuseppe Gentile. While the centaur explains that Jason will face two very different worlds once he leaves home, the youth is eager to go and reclaim his kingdom from his usurper uncle. But uncle grumpy won't leave the throne unless Jason can bring back the magical golden fleece. So Jason rounds up some fellow raiders and heads across the sea into adventure and pillaging.
Meanwhile, the high priestess and princess Medea (Maria Callas, world famous opera star) presides over the human sacrifice necessary for a good crop. After the brutal ceremony, she continues about her daily rituals, eventually coming to worship at the temple of the golden fleece. There she has a vision of Jason. Beguiled by the vision and Jason's studliness, she springs into action to help the young man achieve his goal. To do this, she must destroy her kingdom, kill her brother, and leave everything behind.
She does all these things and returns with Jason to his home. Now Medea is in a strange land and considered a barbarian by everyone she meets. Jason spends ten years with her and they live happily with their two sons. But since this is a Greek Tragedy, things must go sour. To ensure his sons have everything they could want, Jason decides to marry the princess of Corinth. Medea may be far from home, but the passion and power within her awakens. She's about to destroy everything around her, in her desire to make Jason pay for everything he's done to her.
Medea is quite simply an art film. If those two words next to each other frighten you, then skip this and watch Jason and the Argonauts, because Pasolini is not interested in action, adventure, or amazing creatures. Instead, he's more interested in the clash of two worlds in the dim recesses of human history. This is a view of myth as history, but presented in a way that is both realistic and dreamlike.
While Medea is based on the ancient greek tragedy by Euripidies, it takes some detours. The play begins and ends in Corinth; Medea is already living with Jason and learning of his plan to marry the princess of Corinth. But Pasolini starts the film with Jason, covers the quest for the golden fleece, and builds to the climax presented in the play. This does a couple of interesting things. While ancient audiences were well versed in the mythic story of Medea, modern audiences need the whole tale presented. This also allows us to see Medea in her own country, with her own people. Once we understand her connections there, her isolation with Jason becomes much more powerful.
Callas does a superb job in the role. There is actually very little dialogue in the film, and much of the first half is nearly all done in pantomime. Callas is very expressive in these early scenes, exuding power and dominance as the high priestess. In addition, she portrays awe of the gods and the power of the fleece, not to mention the desire in her eyes once she sees Jason in the vision and then in real life.
In the second half, Callas gets much more dialogue and handles it well. But keep in mind, this is a late '60s Italian film, which means everything is dubbed in Italian. There is very little concern for matching lip movements, and it's quite obvious that Callas is speaking her lines in English. Still, she does so much with her eyes, especially as her fury builds towards the end of the tale. As she lifts the knife for her final act of revenge, the pain and futility is chilling.
Callas is the big selling point here, and for good reason. The rest of the performances range for adequate to poor. Pasolini is famous for using non-actors in roles, and we get quite a bit, especially in the scenes in Medea's kingdom. Some folks are just cracking up in the background or performing human sacrifice with barely concealed grin. Key roles, like the centaur and the princess of Corinth are quite a bit better.
But Medea has another ace up its sleeve, its amazing locales. Shot in Turkey and Italy, the landscapes and natural world used as backdrops are breathtaking. Medea's kingdom resides in a honeycomb of buildings perched atop the side of a cliff, adding a layer of mystic power to those scenes. Jason's homeland is closer to a traditional ancient Greek world, but more arid. Still it's not lacking in some amazing vistas of its own.
Pasolini also does some excellent framing and capturing of scenes, using the camera to isolate Medea in many sequences. At other times, he'll fill the frame with her face allowing us to see the naked emotions at play. The rest of the time the camera is hand held, showing us the world almost like a documentary. The approach for the film was naturalistic, presenting the story as a prehistoric vision. The camera films these moments like a National Geographic special, giving us a glimpse of these early cultures.
The Blu-ray presented by E1 provides a breathtaking 1.85:1/1080p high definition image of the remastered film taken from the 35mm print. The result is stunning, with gorgeous landscapes that pop off the screen. Audio purists will be pleased that original mono track has been retained here. It's very clear and balances the ethnic (and often tribal sounding) score well with the Italian dialogue. As a bonus feature you get a 95 minute documentary about the life of Maria Callas simply called Callas made a few years after her death in 1977.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As wonderful as Pasolini is in capturing vistas and building the worlds of Jason and Medea, he ends up sacrificing too much to pacing. Medea nearly reaches two hours, but feels a lot longer. The scenes in Medea's kingdom are filled with long shots that slowly—oh so slowly—build into meaningful scenes. A little of this can be expected, especially with such great locations, but it makes the narrative grind to a halt too many times. Things get a little better in the second half, once we hit the meat of the play, but even here there are too many turgid sequences that never build tension or do anything much more than look good.
The dubbing issue is very distracting. Not only were few of the lines matching the lip movements, but even some of the singing by characters and playing of instruments doesn't come close to matching what we're seeing.
Fans of Pasolini and Callas will find plenty to enjoy, as will fans of art films in general. Anyone looking for a faithful interpretation of Eurpides play may be disappointed by the strange detours the film takes. In the end, I appreciated Medea (Blu-ray) and many of its elements, but I'm not sure it's something I'll return to in the future.
Too fascinating to be guilty.
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