This fantasy vision of Greek myth seems to be some kind of hymn to the primitive, paean to the pagan: but better not to try to theorise it, just feel its poetic power. The vision is certainly alien and arcane enough to grip the imagination.
The early sections of Medea are trademark Pasolini: flesh, pain, cruelty, and death, in exotic garb, with much wordless standing around. But once he’s got that out of his system the rest is surprisingly tasteful, by his standards.
Maria Callas lends grandeur and gravitas as Medea the sorceress, equally expressive in stillness and in passionate animation. Giuseppe Gentile (an Olympic triple-jumper!) is an attractive and natural Jason. But what really makes a success of Medea, as with Pasolini’s subsequent films on mythic themes, is the beautiful cinematography (and production design). First, in Medea’s Caucasian homeland, the palette is blue and pale brown, foreground and background. The distinctly Italian faces of the supporting cast peer out from furs, skins, dyed cloaks and patchwork blankets, against sand, rock and scrub, and the wide blue sky. Then the shift to Corinth (played by Pisa) is signalled by saffron, turquoise and gold against the stones of the palace.
Certainly Pasolini’s Greece faces east, not west, as we are reminded by a suitably archaic soundtrack: quavering pucked strings, keening mourners and a women’s choir evoking the remote musical roots of the Orthodox Church.
Well-edited in comparison to some of this director’s work, the film is swift when it needs to be and doesn’t drag when the pace needs to slow. The weakest points are a couple of plonking explanations of the story by a centaur who sounds as though he has spent too long at the University of Bologna. I don’t think words were really Pasolini’s medium, but he gives us a few effective bursts of Euripides towards the end, as Medea simmers amid her chorus of attendants, as she is banished by King Creon, and then in her final confrontations with Jason.
Pasolini may not have created a work with the dramatic subtlety of Greek tragedy, and reports of its depth have been much exaggerated, but he realised some powerful and memorable scenes, and gestured at something fierce and elemental in Greek myth. In this symbolic representation of the clash of Mediterranean civilisation with the ‘barbarism’ from which it emerged, his sympathies seem to be with the latter. ‘Nothing is possible now’ is Medea’s closing line, and perhaps also Pasolini’s own cry of disenchantment.