Sunday, August 06, 2006

Medea (1969)

Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969)

Pier Paolo Pasolini's adaptation of the tale of Greek mythological sorceress Medea starts with Jason growing up under the guidance of a centaur. Pasolini unbears his themes right there in the beginning. Jason, as an infant, listens to the half man, half horse telling his fate, his Greek genealogy, and then just discards everything as boring banter. Jason grows up and the centaur looks much more normal, a talkative sage instead of a mystic mythological humanoid. He prepares the adult Jason (Giuseppe Gentile) to face his quest and regain his throne from his usurping uncle. The uncle then sends him to retrieve the magical golden fleece from a foreign land after which the uncle would freely give up the kingdom to the returning heir.

Medea (Maria Callas) is a priestess in a foreign land. She helps Jason retrieve the golden fleece and runs off with him, falling in love with the brute Greek, and bearing him two children. Jason leaves the foreign priestess to marry the daughter of the King of Corinth. Medea, passionate and vengeful, offers her priestly robes, causing the Corinthian princess to burn. As a final act of vengeance to Jason, she murders his two children. Pasolini does not stray far from the age old tale, but completely revamps the mythological aspects, choosing a setting more archaelogically, or at least anthropologically accurate, or creative, and setting his Marxist principles at work.

A Greek tale is almost impossible without the accompanying tinge of mysticism, of a reliance to the machinations of the elemental gods that duly guide the Greek heroes and villains to their respective places in history. Pasolini throws everything out the window. Mysticism is transformed into ritualistic processes, and the dieties' presence merely bestowed from Pasolini's cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri's clever use of natural lighting in invoking the divine and the otherworldly. Pasolini wraps the film with an atmosphere of earthliness, despite the fact that the tale is that of myth and of gods. Chants, rhythmic drumbeats, or Japanese songs accompanied by string instrument strummings complete the anthropological notion of the multi-racial world of the Mediterranean. Nothing magical ever happens, nor gods never materialize in the human world. The only instances of mysticism happen when Jason is an infant, and a toddler and sees his mentor as half-man and half-horse, and when Medea, plotting his revenge, cooks up her plan in the only way she knows how, as a priestess receiving divine intervention from the sun, and her vengeance culminating in a magical fiery demise of the king and the princess.

Intead, Pasolini's thrust is provided by human instincts. The vengeance does not end with the magical robe burning both princess and king, but with the princess ending her life in sorrowful anguish, and the king following as an endnote to all suffering. There is still a sense of ceremonial respect, with the infanticide happening as a ritual, instead of a passionate act of insanity. Medea calling her children, one by one, to take a bath, and sleep, and she then stabs them with an intricately designed dagger, and sending them to their silent deaths. It's deeper that way, and paints a portrait of a woman lost in a world whose gods are logic, ritual and rationality.

Medea is a tragic figure: a woman plucked from a society whose reliance on magic keeps her needed and worthy and then transported to a society that has rightfully forgotten its ancient, primitive traditions in the guise of human progress, and finally forgotten by the man who she has given everything up for. Pasolini draws the line and alludes ancient Greece to present society: a society of progress where religion and the reliance to the divine is of no use. The tragedy of Medea being the tragedy of the everyman whose reliance to faith and religion is as pathetic as the sorceress unable to grasp progress.

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