Pasolini’s Cathartic Medea

MedeaI just saw Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 film, Medea. As usual, it is a beautiful film without a great deal of bother about the plot. I think this is why Pasolini picked subjects like the Gospel of Matthew and Oedipus Rex for his films. It allowed him to deal with film as an art without getting too bogged down in the transitions required to tell a story. That worked especially well with, The Gospel According to St Matthew, as I discussed in Pasolini’s Atheistic Tribute to Christianity. The gospels are episodic with no real transitions themselves. That’s not so much true with Medea.

Pasolini put two different stories together in the film. The first 50 minutes of the film involves Jason’s quest for the golden fleece and Medea’s abandonment her entire life in order to give it to him. The remaining hour is dedicated to a curious telling of Euripides’ play Medea. But even if you know these stories well, you will still be fairly confused. All together, the film comes off as a series of moments. As though Pasolini is saying to the viewer, “Remember when Medea murdered her brother to allow Jason to get away? Remember when Creon banished Medea?” The major scenes are rendered, but there are very few dots connecting them.

In addition to this, the second half of the film is presented in a seemingly random order. Jason’s infidelity is only made clear in retrospect. And perhaps the most confusing thing: Medea’s murder of Glauce is presented twice in two different ways. It was only on second viewing that I realized what Pasolini was doing. At first, he is presenting it as Glauce’s father, Creon, imagines it. This leads him to go to Medea and banish her. This is not in the play and it is a very welcome addition. But Pasolini provides not clear indication of this. In fact, in the Wikipedia entry on the movie, it speculates that the first murder is Medea’s vision. This is an understandable error.

Having said all this, you probably have the impression that Medea is not good. But that isn’t my impression of it at all. I thought it is was riveting from the very start. But I’ve begun to question whether I can much speak for other people. In recent years, I’ve begun to see film much more as pure visual art. Or at least that’s how I approach it when that is how it is intended. And that’s certainly the case with the Pasolini that I’ve seen. In that regard Medea is a tour de force.

It isn’t just the visuals here. The performances are great — Most especially Maria Callas! — and the music and sound are overwhelming. The whole package is incredibly self-assured. Pasolini seems very clear that he is going to present these two great myths with a maximum of power. And that’s why he can’t be bothered with trivialities like why Jason is treating Medea so poorly. And that’s probably for the best, because a modern audience can’t really understand Jason’s betrayal anyway. And what does it matter? It’s really just about the injustices done to Medea and her (over) reactions to them.

The film ends with Medea shouting at Jason from behind a line of fire, “Nothing is possible anymore!” It’s shocking but appropriate. And it sums up her whole life from meeting Jason. It also sums up all of our lives — it is just that our tragedies are so much more banal. Medea takes our pedestrian sufferings and transforms them into something powerful. If you are up to it, it will not disappoint. But Medea is certainly not for casual viewing.


Here is the whole film on YouTube. The print is not great, but it will do. And the subtitles are better than on my print.

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