International Film: Medea (1969)

Leslie Deng writes this week's international film column

Leslie Deng
17th May 2018
Image: YouTube

While watching the ever overwhelming Velvet Goldmine recently, an Oscar Wilde quotation triggered a curiosity, saying how Dorian Gray felt the whole world had happened inside his imagination already; this reminds me of a modern poem on Euripides’ Bacchae, declaring “previousness is something a god can manage fairly well, but mortals less so.”

The 1969 film Medea, directed by the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, is nothing like a ‘play adaption’; indeed it’s nothing like what I’ve ever watched before. It’s a realistic fantasy, in which language is minimised, images are disturbingly raw and confusing, and the whole tone was stripped off any romanticism of a tragedy.

Instead of a drama of words and performance, Medea is more like a drama of cinematic language and landscape. Medea and Jason became embodiments of the landscapes that nourished and sculptured them. The film opens as a wordy centaur lecturing to a young boy in a hermetic island surrounded by calm water; and as the boy grows, the lectures became philosophical, discussing deity and mortal. Then a quest is bestowed upon the grown-up hero.

This is the upbringing of Jason, in an arcadia landscape above human society, and what he personifies: a charming outsider who’s not caught in secular struggles. Very abruptly, the film then cuts to a vast landscape breathing with hot sand, against which are people wearing strange costumes preparing religious ritual.

I can’t help noticing the shaky handheld shots that almost feel amateur; and teaming with atonal chanting, the atmosphere appears most eerie. The ritual turned out to be a human sacrifice. Most interestingly, the sequence is shown like an anthropologic observation, raw and unpolished, with gory details sure to disturb audience; yet there’s no dramatisation intended, the whole ceremony is as seen from Medea’s perspective, who is the princess of this landscape. The conflicts is thus embedded between one who has travelled and see the ‘previousness’ of human existence, and one who stays in a permanent ‘previousness’ and was forced, by her own desires, to tumble ahead.

Medea’s world is stark with language, no conversation passed between them until after their separation in Corinth, whose stone towers and trimmed meadow form a huge contrast with the hills and sand of her motherland. And it is here Medea tried and failed to negotiate with Jason verbally(which is not a tool of hers)—landscapes finally clashed, resulted in an ultimate fire. Pasolini didn’t simply position Medea as a victim of patriarchy, nor a fighter against it, but a self-asserted women troubled by shifting realities that is not of her, nor any single person’s ability to determine: it is all in the process of happening, and the cycle of happening trembles on.

Medea is a dense film that deals with the huge subjects of religion, desire and civilisation, while the arrogance of the ‘culturally superior’ depicted is especially relevant, as the king of Corinth said after announcing Medea’s exile: “It’s not your diversity I’m afraid of, but the safety of my daughters.”


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