Saturday, 27 September 2008

Pasolini's Medea

Some kind individual has put up a few sections from Pier Paolo Pasolini's magnificent 1969 film Medea on YouTube. It's one of my favourite films, with its anthropologically-rich design and eerie, oneiric atmosphere. And, of course, the stupendous Maria Callas playing Medea, here represented as the charismatic priestess of some Anatolian mother-cult straight out of The Golden Bough. It's one of cinema's most interesting responses to the classical world and its literature, lifting great chunks of dialogue straight from Euripides' Medea.

Above are two sections. The first is the opening scene in Colchis, in which Medea, as the community's high priestess, sacrifices a young man as an offering to the harvest-gods. The people, including little children, hold out wooden bowls in which to receive gobbets of his bleeding flesh to smear on their growing crops. The second shows the arrival of Jason and the Argonauts into this unearthly Cappadocian landscape of pointy stone hills honeycombed with caves. About halfway though, we see the everyday life of the community - the spinning of wool, pressing of wine and the preparing of food, all the rituals of 'womens' religion'; finally, Medea is ceremonially dressed by her women and must walk through fire with bound hands, as a ritual expiation of the yearly human sacrifice which she has overseen.

If you watch nothing else, look at the second half of the second excerpt. The depiction of a hieratic, unsettling paganism is extraordinary; I especially love the costumes, with their bead-encrusted lapis-lazuli vestments, golden necklaces and filmy veils. The soundtrack, with its mixture of Bulgarian women's folksong, Tibetan bangs and growls and sizzling cicadas, contributes greatly to the disturbing, hallucinatory defamiliarisation that the film brings about. Forget the campiness of The Wicker Man - a film inexplicably loved by a lot of modern Pagans - this is the real thing.

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There is a useful essay here by Molly Haskell on the film. She writes, most lucidly: 'In reconstructing the world of Colchis, with its cave dwellings in tiers of stone, its ritual of human sacrifice, dismemberment, and "re-cycling of limbs and organs," its magic and incantations, Pasolini attempts to recapture a sense of the strangeness and wholeness of nature before it was called "natural." The world of Colchis is not so much prehistoric as preconceptual, its houses and vegetation and animals and human beings forming an unbroken chain of life and death.

A link in this chain and its crowning glory is Medea. To the role Maria Callas brings the magnificence not of an actress seeking modulation and motivation, but of an image, emblazoned across the film like a medallion. For Pasolini, Medea is not an individual woman with inner conflicts and complexes, but the quintessence of a primeval civilization which, even as she betrays and abandons it, hacking her own brother to pieces to delay the pursuers, she most clearly embodies, and which clings to her tragically in her new home.'

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