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PostPosted: Mon Oct 28, 2013 2:39 am 
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Pasolini's stripped-down, hieratic 'Medea' doesn't really work

Paris, like San Francisco, has been having autumn 2013 revival showings of Pasolini's films. The early ones are original expressions of the neorealist legacy, with his own fanciful touches, as in his extraordinary The Gospel According to St. Matthew. (To his lasting credit, he was always experimenting; and let's not forget he was also a significant novelist and great poet.) Later, the bawdy story trilogy is, generally, wonderful and inspired. Others are strange and uneven, or don't quite work, such as Oedipus and Medea, and the punishing sado-masochistic meander that is Salo. Medea, starring Maria Callas, is Pasonli's eighth film, just before his story trilogy based successively on The Decameron, Canterbury Tales, and 1001 Nights. Medea makes use of the same exotic mixture, but in a stilted, static, awkward sort of way that never quite works. Pasolini's Medea is a disaster, though of course not an unmitigated one. The settings blend European and Middle Eastern, the clothes are fantastic inventions, with North African tribal music and at a key late point the twangy strumming sounds of Japanese Noh drama. Local actors are mixed in with imported Italians,. (All this worked best with the 1001 Nights, a story collection that is itself a lapidary exotic mix.) The movement in Media is slow, with relatively little dialogue. Pasolini has stripped down Euripides to an empty, brightly colored husk.

Jason and the argonauts come to Medea. She's a "barbarian," so Pasolini depicts her people as spending a lot of time out in the open performing rituals and sacrifices to bring a good harvest (Stavinsky's Rite of Spring might be thought of.) The costumes and dances are said to be "based on those of Eastern European Mummers [sic] such as the Romanian Calusari ceremonies and their counterparts in the Balkans" (Wikipedia), but they look quite a lot like fanciful Sixties or Seventies stage costumes to me. They kind of foreshadow "The Lion King." But not any version you'd bring your kids to, since a central ritual includes killing a handsome young man and cutting out his organs and passing out the flesh and blood to everyone present, and, of course, a woman who (in this version somewhat inexplicably) murders her two young sons.

The film's earliest scenes involve a centaur (a good-humored and often smiling Laurent Terzieff) flashing bright movie-star teeth) addressing the young Jason. Or so I am told. I could not make much sense of it. The centaur turns into a man but Jason pays no attention; perhaps neither do we, since it seems just poor continuity. When Jason grows up he's played, typical for Pasolini, by an actor who is pure eye candy, Giuseppe Gentile. He doesn't perform his lines very well, but then in this film most scenes do not require effective line delivery.

When Medea comes on the scene, she doesn't ever say much -- perhaps because Pasolini was using Callas, a singer, who could not be trusted to deliver spoken lines well, but largely because of the very arbitrary, abstracted version of the play that's being presented, which has most of the lines cut out. I remember an old recording of Judith Anderson's celebrated performance of an English version of Euripides in which everything was made of words, delivered with great power. It was riveting, and meaningful. Without the speeches of Medea to define her position, with everything reduced to ritual and spectacle, the play begins to seem like people posing in costumes, and often a bit awkwardly at that, however nice looking they are and handsomely costumed. And titillatingly. One must note the ultra short shorts the younger men are fitted with, which show as much leg and thigh as in a Japanese male festival.

If some of the handsome men and boys, however nice their legs, are lifeless eye candy -- and one wonders why Pasolini always has his young cute non actors smile in every shot, regardless of the action), Callas is iconic at best rather than real. She is perhaps not comfortable in front of the cameras; it was an unfamiliar gig for her. And she is by no means always photographed well. At times her closeups in the bright sunight are overexposed and she looks surprisingly ordinary, which in life and in performance in her heyday was certainly not the case. After he Meneghini makeover she was a very striking and elegant woman. It's sad that this film, despite being largely spectacle, doesn't quite capture that. But then Medea is a role that calls not for soulfulness and elegant lyricism but grit and ferocious anger. This is novelty celebrity casting. Nonetheless, Callas has a strong theatrical presence, and wears her heavy hieratic costumes with ease.

In the play Medea's horrific revenge murder of her two young boys happens off-stage. Pasolini chooses instead to film it. Only it is a slow and dragged out sequence, agonizing, and lacking a sense of fulfillment, in which we see Medea bathe the two boys one by one and prepare them for bed. And then we see a knife and we see a bit of blood; that's all. Here Pasolini seems to lack a sense of action pacing. But without Medea's words before, during, or after the event, it's a strange sequence anyway. This film shows that Pasolini as a filmmaker was always at best a brilliant amateur. His boldness and originality, his breaking of rules, sometimes works terrifically well, and sometimes falls flat, as it does here. Of course this is meant as a radical reinterpretation of ancient material in primitive ritualistic terms. But this is Greek tragedy. More is lost than gained. This isn't the case with the story trilogy. Pasolini uses only a handful from each of the three collections, but in them he brings them magically to life.

Medea, 110 mins., was screened for this review at MK2 Hautefeuille in Paris 25 October 2013. The Turner Classic comment is sensible.

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