rushthatspeaks: (Default)
[personal profile] rushthatspeaks
I'd been wanting to see a film by Pasolini for some time, but the only one that's been widely available is the Criterion disc of Salò, which, no, I did not want to begin my acquaintance with a director by watching his adaptation of 120 Days of Sodom, thank you. But his Medea is out on DVD now, and [personal profile] sovay and I watched it. It stars Maria Callas as Medea (she does not sing).

This is the only film dealing with a classical Greek myth I have ever seen which gets the period right, by which I mean that it is not set in the classical period. It is set in the Archaic period-- it takes place when the myth is said to have happened, instead of when the most widely known versions of the myth were written. Pasolini filmed in Turkey, in Cappadocia in fact, i.e. very close to where Colchis, Medea's homeland, is actually supposed to have been. So it's the correct period and filmed on location, and it distinguishes in dress, customs, religion, and (possibly*) language between the inhabitants of Colchis and the culture of the Argonauts from mainland Greece, and these things alone would be enough to make me love the movie and treasure it forever.

However, it's also just the best Medea I have ever encountered. It's not a version of Euripides, it keeps none of the language; it's a pragmatic retelling, with long stretches containing no dialogue at all. (For the first hour of the movie I thought that Jason and Medea were literally never going to speak to each other. It's better: they only speak after they are estranged, and every word each directs at the other is a lie.) The film is concerned with Medea's position as a foreigner, with the way her origins make her dangerous to her husband's people because they do not understand her, with the way that is both her strength and her weakness. The great question hanging over the story is not one of moral justification, or of bringing us comprehension of a set of unjustifiable crimes, which are the usual emphases, but the question of whether the gods and magic are real, and what interaction this has with the clash of two cultures. Medea's people, early in the film, sacrifice a year-king (the only ritual sparagmos I've seen on film) and, looking out over the fields they have painstakingly smeared with his blood, she tells him to die for the seed and be reborn when it returns. She is the priestess of the Golden Fleece (an avatar of Helios, hung on the structure they also use to hold the dying year-king) and the granddaughter of Helios, but when she leaves her people she can no longer hear the sun speak to her and starts to wonder whether her gods are real. Her reputation as a witch in her husband's city is caused by fear of the foreigner and she does not know herself whether she is fulfilling that reputation or only using it, if her crimes are ones that can be offered to the undying sun, if there will be rebirth after them. There are conflicting textual versions of the death of Glauce, Jason's promised new bride, one magical and one not: the film shows both, one after the other, with no bias as to which one actually happened. But there is only one version of the death of her sons, for killing a child, as she realizes too late, shuts down possibilities in the world.

Many of the actors, as was apparently Pasolini's way, are not professionals. The one who played Jason, Giuseppe Gentile, is most famous as an Olympic bronze medalist in the triple jump. And yet they produce the kind of performance that embodies a character. Most of the Argonauts never speak, but we can tell instantly which ones are which by looking at them, the twins, Heracles who is neither unusually tall nor wearing a lionskin but who just exudes being Heracles at the camera, the lyre-player who seems young for Orpheus but then Orpheus hadn't grown into his own tragedy yet... Callas, of course, is and must be the center of the movie. Her performance is the hieratic, large-gestured drama of the opera heroine, which is appropriate, as there are ways in which the film lets us see inside her head and there are ways in which we are forced to share the perspective of the ones who can never quite tell what she is thinking. The audience knows more about her than Jason does, and more about Jason than she does, but would knowing more have been enough for either of them?

She is also beautiful and striking, with a shockingly deep and harsh speaking voice, wrenching in its power when it is raised. There is a magnificent scene where she paces back and forth, trailed by a gaggle of attendants, cursing her husband and begging the gods for revenge: by the fifth round of it they've all learned the words of her rant, and I get the sense that if any of these attendants, in a later time, require revenge on someone, the words of their panting queen will be their spell. She holds the eye both because of and despite the costuming, for as I said this film is set in the Archaic period and it makes no compromise whatsoever with the aesthetics of modern clothing or jewelry. This has the undyed wool and goatskin and other leather and the beads of a time so remote from now that the very visual look of the film itself is alienating and awe-inspiring because the habits of mind indicated by the construction of the clothing are so very, very different than modernity. For one thing, Jason's is a society in which gender roles are indicated so entirely by clothing that woman is distinguishable across far hillsides at a glance, by the veil or half-hood which does not go across the face but drops from the forehead at the sides and makes the silhouette a perfect triangle down into the gown. So thoroughly does that say woman that Pasolini plays with it a little: some of Medea's attendants, dressed this way, are clearly male, which can be told only by face shape and wrist structure, and which holds no relevance to their social roles at all. And the erotics of the clothing in this culture are different from nowadays; women are not objects of erotic gaze (being after all triangular); that is the province of young men, who habitually wear almost nothing. Medea knows she has lost her Jason when she sees him whirling through a young man's dance, circling and meeting again with her children's tutor-- nothing is ever said about this, nor does it need to be, and it has no relevance to his remarriage at all. In the place she comes from, women are both erotic subject and object (though they dress in a way which appears outwardly very similar) and this displacement is one reason why in her husband's home she will always be a stranger. And this is how the erotics of Greek clothing worked at the time and I really thought no one would ever film it.

I am not sure I would recommend the film to people who do not already know the story fairly well. Much of the point is how little explanation there is, how this is the stuff of myth compressed into daily life compressed into an almost ethnographical depiction of a long time ago (at least, a long time ago as seen through the eyes of the Cambridge ritualists). Knowing who you are looking for in the crowd of Argonauts will help you be able to see them; the foreshadowing of future violences is subtle; one of the film's great emotional moments is when Medea sends her own garb as priestess of Helios to Glauce and it kills her, an interpretation which gains its strength from both the fact that I have never seen it before and that it makes so much sense, more sense than any ordinary poisoned dress could. (For of course, if there are gods, that dress worn by the wrong person will strike its wearer down with fire, and, if there are not, the view of herself garbed as irreconcilably other and the knowledge of what her husband's wife has really lived through is too much for Glauce and she jumps off the battlements.)

But if you know this story, love this story, love the stories around it, are aggravated by the vast majority of film dealing with related subjects, you will love this.

And also, oddly enough, it is as close as we will ever come, I think, in mood, tone, manner, and color, in costume, small politenesses, and way of being in a country, to a film of Naomi Mitchison's The Corn King and the Spring Queen.


* I say possibly language because the direction is so clever that there's no way to tell. Everyone in the film speaks Italian, but it's entirely likely that they don't understand each other's Italian-- Medea and the Argonauts do not speak to one another in the period just after she leaves with them, except for a moment where she breaks with culture shock and screams at them, and you can't tell whether their responses indicate politely ignoring her tantrum, mockingly ignoring her tantrum, or just having no idea what she's screaming about. Jason's response to the situation is to take her to bed, which doesn't involve them talking. And then there's a time-jump and after it they are all clearly speaking the same language, but you don't know whether she's had to learn a new one. Probably.

Date: 2012-01-23 03:15 am (UTC)
kore: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kore
Oh, wow.

Date: 2012-01-23 03:20 am (UTC)
msilverstar: (viggo 09)
From: [personal profile] msilverstar
Wow, what a great review, if I ever see the movie I will be very much thinking about what you say.

Do you know about Ariel Dorfman's play about Medea (among other things), "Purgatorio"? I'd be interested in hearing your take on it.

Date: 2012-01-23 05:09 am (UTC)
movingfinger: (Default)
From: [personal profile] movingfinger
Some wicked soul has put it up on YouTube.

Date: 2012-01-23 11:09 pm (UTC)
movingfinger: (Default)
From: [personal profile] movingfinger
The last two parts (11/12 and 12/12) are missing. Alas.

ETA: Ah, those are interviews or extra material. The whole movie is there in ten parts! Lo-fi, but there.
Edited Date: 2012-01-24 01:57 am (UTC)

Date: 2012-01-23 08:18 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] lilmoka
Pasolini *happy sigh*

Date: 2012-01-24 08:16 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] lilmoka
My favourite is probably Decameron, but I also like Mamma Roma and Accattone.

Mostly, I love his books: Ragazzi di Vita and A Violent Life <3

Date: 2012-01-23 12:27 pm (UTC)
surexit: A brightly smiling girl in a spotted headscarf. (:D)
From: [personal profile] surexit
Your comments about the erotics of clothing are fascinating. This whole review is fascinating.

Date: 2012-01-24 09:02 am (UTC)
surexit: A bird held loosely in two hands, with the text 'kenovay'. (Default)
From: [personal profile] surexit
the way people relate to clothing fascinate me

I've really never thought about it. I love history, and there are lots of aspects of history that I really love thinking about in that 'past is a foreign country' sort of way, you know? Where stuff blows your mind because it's just such a fundamental difference, things like multilinguality and storytelling assumptions and literacy and ideas of race and ideas of historiography and limitations of lighting &c. &c. (my area is early medieval Britain :D:D) but clothing has never yet crossed my mind, and now it has I am delighted and deeply intrigued. And will be thinking about it more.

Date: 2012-01-23 05:59 pm (UTC)
genarti: Bank of clouds with slice of sunlight and sunbeams emergine. ([misc] slanting sunbeams)
From: [personal profile] genarti
Oh, wow. This sounds marvelous.

Date: 2012-01-23 03:42 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nineweaving.livejournal.com
I love this review. Thank you so very much for seeing and translating.

Nine

Date: 2012-01-23 10:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rushthatspeaks.livejournal.com
... translating? Huh?

I am glad you like it.

Date: 2012-01-23 03:44 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] embryomystic.livejournal.com
That sounds amazing. I, personally, dream of one day making films of the Ulster Cycle with this kind of onness and attention to detail.

Date: 2012-01-23 10:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rushthatspeaks.livejournal.com
Oh, man, we need films of the Ulster Cycle like that, that would be so amazing.

Date: 2012-01-23 10:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] teenybuffalo.livejournal.com
We would need Rick Baker to do the special effects. I'm convinced that when Cuchulainn goes into warp-spasm, he's a Lovecraftian abomination.

Date: 2012-01-24 02:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] embryomystic.livejournal.com
I think that warp spasm should be portrayed several different ways, to acknowledge that there's multiple ways of reading it. Have the fundamental experience of Cú Chulainn's battles be about how it's retold around the fires of the Connachtmen's encampments, and then represent each tale told as each different storyteller tells it. In some, it's a truly supernatural transformation. In others, he's just incredibly fast, incredibly strong, and wearing a frightening expression on his very human face.

Also, the films should be in Irish. Accurate Ulster Irish for the Ulstermen, accurate Connacht Irish for the Connachtmen.

Date: 2012-01-24 03:35 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] teenybuffalo.livejournal.com
That's wonderful--as in this film, you mean?--film several different portrayals, and have them all be valid. It's like a long lingering revenge on all the demystifying historic non-fantasy I've read lately. (Much as I love The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, I find it aggravating that the author goes to great lengths to show us the man behind the curtain and make sure there's not a monster or a visible god left anywhere in the story. AND THEN also has a scene where there are Amazons with magic healing powers. Ahem. Rant for elsewhere.)

And and and, all the rude lines should be left in. And gross-out humor, like when Maeve gets her "gush of blood." I've heard this described as the work of a transcription monk who didn't know enough about women to tell the difference between urination and menstruation.

Obviously we must write up a pitch and go track down Guillermo del Toro. He might be a bit hard to find as I've lost his cell number and we haven't played mini-golf together lately.

Date: 2012-01-24 11:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] embryomystic.livejournal.com
That's wonderful--as in this film, you mean?--film several different portrayals, and have them all be valid.

Yes. Because that's kind of how I see it.

And and and, all the rude lines should be left in.

Well, yes. I'd like to go fairly minimalistic with the dialogue, which, as I understand it, varies from version to version anyway, but it's not something I'd have any intention of sanitising, any more than I'd want to puff it up into something it's not.

Date: 2012-01-24 02:21 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] embryomystic.livejournal.com
I dream and dream. I even have a suitably dedicated friend who would produce them.

Date: 2012-01-24 06:35 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] meganbmoore.livejournal.com
I'm not entirely certain if I ever got my thoughts on this movie to progress beyond "This is kinda weird. And awesome. And kinda pretentious. And rather on the fascinating side. Will people ever talk? Wow, I hope that little boy wasn't really sitting naked on that horse a while ago, because I think that would hurt. Oh, Maria Callas is being hot again."

I need to find a way to get this on DVD.

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