| December 6, 2011

The opening scenes of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 film Medea move slowly and silently. Then suddenly you’re witnessing a human sacrifice, the brutal killing and mutilation of a young man who seems almost willing to die. Pasolini, known for his visual commentary on religion, sex and violence, creates a brutal yet striking film. The violence is thrown at you, sometimes unexpectedly, and the comparisons between Christian ceremony and ancient barbaric ritual are disturbingly clear.
Medea is the story of a woman who leaves her primitive village for Greece to become the wife of Jason of the Argonauts. After years of marriage and bearing two sons, Jason leaves her to marry a young princess. Medea becomes vengeful and does whatever she believes will be the most hurtful to the man she once loved. Pasolini is credited with writing the film, but the story is taken from Euripides’ Greek tragedy written in the 5th century BCE.
Opera singer Maria Callas put aside her dramatic soprano to play her only film role, and this diva shines! While opera aficionados have debated the quality of Callas’ singing voice, there is no question that the dramatic effort she brings to all her roles is consistently perfect. As Medea, she blends the violent barbarianism of her people with the soft heart of a wife and mother. Her strong presence frightens most, from her own father to the King of Creon, although she claims to be unobtrusive and meek. When trying to secure the trust of her estranged husband, she states that her weaknesses come from being a woman.
As the film proceeds you learn that Medea’s weaknesses don’t have anything to do with her being a woman, but more that her ire comes from her position as a woman. She is forced to change everything about herself when she moves to Greece in order to conform to their ways. Her husband takes advantage of her, insulting her position as the mother of his children and dishonoring her by suggesting that she become his whore. She begins to retreat to her former customs when she was high priestess of her native village and practiced black magic.
Towards the end of the film her ladies in waiting begin to look more like a coven. Dark cloaks cover their heads and they walk in unison with their leader. She converses with them about her troubles and convinces them, and herself, that vengeance is the only answer. As she imagines her revenge, her image is superimposed over the vast mountains that surround the Greek village. The ripples in her hooded cloak blend in with the ridges of the mountains, as if her ghost unsuspectingly haunts the area. And it is unsuspected, her barbaric retribution. Everyone admits they fear her, yet she convinces them that all is forgiven and she just wants to make peace. But peace is the last thing on her mind. At the end of the film the question is still what made her so evil. Is it her barbarian upbringing, depicted so brutally at the beginning of the story? Or is there really no greater fury than a woman scorned?

About the Author:

Kylah Magee received an MA in film studies from Chapman University and a music degree from Texas State. She has worked with the LA Film Festival and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. She owns and operates Nine Muses Studio where she teaches private voice lessons in Austin, TX.
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