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Thursday, March 29, 2012

MEDEA (1969)

Pier Paolo Pasolini really opens things up on this adaptation of Euripides, only reaching the play text halfway out. Instead, we begin with a ritual human sacrifice, an offering in a savage world of primitive culture & superstition, Medea’s homeland. It’s the most sustained sequence in the film, but it has the unfortunate consequence of offering a pat psychological ‘explanation’ to Medea’s lethal revenge when she’s uprooted to a more civilized society. Yet, even here, right at the start, when the striking locations & art direction are at their most effective, Pasolini seems unable (unwilling?) to make decent shot choices. There are fine panoramas of natural, untamed beauty, but whenever he moves in for drama, the camera set-ups refuse to cut together and the film turns into a visual mess. Under the circumstances, Maria Callas, five years off the opera stage, is often a mesmerizing Medea, posing more than acting. But what else could be done against the ludicrous conception of Jason (of Argonaut fame) Pasolini has whipped up. As played by hunky Olympic athlete Giuseppe Gentile, this Jason winks, blows kisses & flashes a Pepsodent smile to shame a Golden Fleece. Gentile stayed off the screen after this debut. Alas, so did Callas. NOTE: Pasolini doesn’t actually mix up his reels in the last act. He’s just playing out Medea’s revenge twice; as imagined, then as it happens.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Looking for an unconventional MEDEA? Try Lars von Trier’s 1988 adaptation (see below), taken from an unfilmed Carl Dreyer script.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Included as an EXTRA on the restored SNC edition of MEDEA is CALLAS/’82, Tony Palmer’s portrait of the diva which, for better & for worse, helped codify a legend that’s now as over-analyzed as that other ‘50s female icon, Marilyn Monroe. But to understand her voice, which is also to understand her, read Will Crutchfield’s New Yorker piece of 11/13/95. Or, to HEAR ALL ABOUT IT: Skip Callas’s operatic MEDEA and go directly to Bellini’s NORMA, her favorite role, with a plot that’s like Medea for Babies. Her later recording from ‘59 has better sound & better colleagues, but the voice could do more back in ‘54. Listen to her curse Pollione (the Jason figure of the opera) just before the dramatic trio that ends the second act. Yikes!, what a woman!

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