In 1964 Pier Paolo Pasolini made his third feature, The Gospel According to Matthew. It told the story of Christ, from birth to crucifixion, albeit in a manner far removed from the usual grandiose epics. The style was closer to Italian neo-realism; its cast consisting of amateur performers, its locations sparse and, more importantly, real, and its camera operating under almost vérité or ‘direct cinema’ circumstances. Pasolini still found a place for his own particular touches (his Christ was dubbed a “Marxist Christ” given the director’s own political sympathies), but importantly this was a Biblical feature unlike all others that had preceded it. No flamboyance, no artifice, no suffocating sense of self-importance.
Five years later, Pasolini turned his attentions to Euripides’ Medea, his second adaptation of Greek mythology following 1967’s interpretation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Many of the ideas from the 1964 film remained, although the overall effect had shifted slightly: if The Gospel According to Matthew was the Story of Christ as neo-realism, then Medea is Greek myth as ethnographic documentary. Here we find Turkey and Syria providing stunning settings for the unfolding drama. The use of non-actors remains, famously headed up by the formidable Maria Callas as Medea in her only film role, plus Italian triple-jumper Giuseppe Gentile, fresh from a Bronze medal at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, cast as Jason. And the camerawork retains that stubborn refusal to be as slick as it could: hand-held wobbles are retained, lending the film an immediacy no different from those early Pasolini films set amongst the Italian underclass.
The shift from neo-realist drama to a more documentary veneer is the result of Medea being less obviously concerned with narrative than Pasolini’s previous films (including Oedipus Rex). The story of Medea, famous from so many interpretations and adaptations, whether in art, literature, theatre or opera, is also, in part, the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Yet Pasolini seems little concerned in creating a film that could be even remotely connected to a Ray Harryhausen fantasy. His Medea may occasionally invite fantastical elements in - as with the opening prologue delivered to a young Jason by his centaur father - but for the most part Pasolini is more interested in the ritualistic elements. We watch as we would do non-fiction footage of an ancient tribe, albeit without a voice-over to lend that helping hand. An opening sacrifice is rendered wordless and must simply unfold whilst we attempt to grasp its meanings and significance; the camera just witnesses as the players struggle to fully hide its presence. Scene after scene plays out in such a manner, with Pasolini also making little concession to audiences in terms of highlighting time or location shifts. The dialogue is just as sparse, as though dramatic impulses were far from the director’s mind.
If this makes Medea sound like a ‘difficult’ film, then arguably it is in purely narrative terms. Of course, it is also telling a story that is centuries old and, as already noted, the subject to numerous re-interpretations and renderings in different media. As such perhaps Pasolini felt little need in delivering a dynamic piece of storytelling, with each scene and its significance easily spelt out, simply because of its familiarity. The basic elements are all there - the key events and the obvious progression from one to the next - but they’re not the most important elements. Indeed, Medea’s means of grabbing its audience is its ability to immerse them within the film. Without a simple, easy-to-follow narrative thread as an anchor, or indeed comparisons to the fantasies of Jason and the Argonauts, we are instead invited to experience, to take these scenes as they unfold solely on their own terms. In this respect those ethnographic qualities make perfect sense: they lay down the rules of this ancient world and provide its ‘atmosphere’, whether it come from watching such a simple act as some food being prepared or from one of the many more obviously ritualistic moments. Furthermore, the approach also allows an element of mundane reality to enter proceedings; never has Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece appeared less intentionally ‘exciting’.
The soundtrack plays an integral part in all this, once again asking the audience to embrace Medea as an immersive experience as well as contributing to the overall atmosphere of ‘realism‘. There was no composer in place but rather a reliance on tribal music (with African and Eastern elements in play) or the ancient acoustic instruments strummed by minor characters. (Callas famously does not sing, but it’s her sheer weight of presence - unmistakeable from her first appearance onscreen - that justifies fully her casting.) Percussion is often discordant and there’s a heavy presence of chants, all of which is far cry from the usual methods of scoring Ancient Greek myths and legends (consider, once again, Jason and the Argonauts and Bernard Herrmann’s compositions). Yet whilst these moments - which can reach an intense cacophony of sound - undeniably make an impact, the use of sparseness is just as important and, indeed, forceful. With such little dialogue throughout the film, oftentimes we do just hear diegetic noises: the rattle of ancient jewellery, the sound of feet against dust, and so on. As with the camerawork it’s another instance of refusing any kind of cinematic slickness and also a reinforcement of the documentary-like methods.
More importantly, such an approach also strongly suggests that Pasolini is demythologizing the Greek myth. The centaur of Medea’s prologue delivers a long speech (the only piece of sustained dialogue over the entire film) in which he declares that “in the ancient world myths and rituals are living reality, part of man’s everyday life”. Yet also contained within this speech is a critique of “modern man” and his inability to see the wonders of the natural world as they would have once been seen. In other words the myth has disappeared from modern living, its mysteries no longer remain. And so it is that Medea presents these mysteries but also marks their end - the final words: “Nothing is possible now.”
Medea is the latest dual-format release from the BFI containing both Blu-ray and DVD editions within the same package. The discs are identical with the exception of one additional feature (which appears on the DVD only) and come encoded for Region B/Region 2. The Blu-ray was supplied for review purposes and will be considered below.
This new release of Medea (the first in the UK since Connoisseur’s VHS from 1990) makes use of a new restoration by the Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie. The work on the 35mm elements was undertaken in Rome, with the 2K scan conducted in Paris. The Entertainment1 label in the US has released a Region A Blu-ray on the same week as the BFI which also utilises the same master. Placed in the context of catalogue titles to have received the HD treatment, Medea isn’t the most remarkable looking of films to have been released to date. Pasolini’s filming methods on this particular production come with their own rough edges which, unavoidably, can never be scrubbed too clean. As such whilst we have a clean image with some wonderful colours, the level of clarity is never perfect. Close-ups generally possess a terrific detail, but anything beyond that comes with a certain softness. With that said, the transfer itself does nothing to accentuate these inherent flaws. Note also that the BFI are issuing Medea onto a BD50 disc, whereas the US offering uses only a BD25 and pairs the film with Tony Palmer’s feature-length Callas documentary from 2007 (available separately in the UK via Palmer himself).
The soundtrack comes in three options: restored Italian including Callas voicing her own words; the original Italian soundtrack (without Callas) that played theatrically; and an English version. All come in lossless LPCM mono form, though understandably only the first comes across especially well owing to its new restoration. (The Callas-voiced soundtrack was Pasolini’s preferred choice, hence the decision to have that one accompany the new restoration.) In all cases we are dealing with post-synched dialogue as was the practice in Italian cinema at the time and with that we do get what the accompanying booklet terms “loose synch”, ie the words do not always match the mouth movements. Nevertheless such issues are unavoidable and, to be honest, barely figure given the sparseness of dialogue throughout. Overall, the Callas soundtrack sounds terrific, coping ably with the cacophonous music/chanting and the quieter passages without any obvious fault. Note also that the English soundtrack originally accompanied a trimmed version of Medea; those passages which were cut necessarily come with Italian soundtrack and English subtitles.
On-disc extras amount to a pair of trailers, one a full-length Italian piece, the other an English-language teaser. Both are ‘told’ in the same fashion: manipulated still images from the film and an emphasis on Pasolini as director and Callas as star. Interestingly they are more about conveying atmosphere than any kind of plot or narrative which makes them intriguing, and welcome, time capsules. The DVD also features what the sleeve dubs “international release elements”. Essentially these are English-language intertitles which help explain the action. One, for example, reads “Ten years later, in the rich city of Corinth, where Medea and Jason are guests of the king.” It is presumed that these were produced for, and possibly used on, an American release of the film.
Rounding off the package we find the typically full - and fully illustrated - BFI booklet containing plenty of contextualising essays, reprints, full credits, transfer notes and so forth. John David Rhodes, whose monograph on Meshes in the Afternoon has just been published, provides an excellent introduction/consideration of the film. Plus there are reprints of a 1970 interview with Callas from the Observer and Nigel Gearing’s 1975 review for the Monthly Film Bulletin. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s three-page director’s bio, that has appeared in all of the BFI’s Pasolini discs, is also present.