Although known throughout the world for her dramatic and musical talents, few cinematic recordings remain today of the great Maria Callas in performance. To celebrate what would have been her 90th birthday, I thought I would write about her only film appearance, playing as Pasolini’s titular Medea, the ancient priestess of most epic proportions.
I was, at first, a little taken back by the world depicted in Medea. Pasolini, in one sense, is exceptionally faithful to the original myths surrounding Medea and to the subsequent tragedy of Euripides. He films her story with such an unwavering courage, depicting even the most horrifying acts with a romantic vigour.
Take, for example, the scene in which Medea kills her brother, forcing her father’s men to stop and retrieve the dismembered pieces of his body, thus allowing her and Jason to escape. I actually remember hearing the story for the first time and thinking it disgusting yet vaguely poetic (yes poetic…). On an enormous silver screen though, it was mostly just the former. At least, this was the stance I had adopted upon seeing those images for the first time. However, the more I mulled over Pasolini’s film, the more I grew to accept, perhaps even admire, his artistry.
The world painted here is not familiar, nor is it at all comforting to the modern viewer. Some of these rites and rituals are, in fact, obscenely unsettling, and Pasolini adds to this atmosphere with a multitude of atypical cinematic techniques, everything from fast pans to low angle shots, for instance, are employed in the scene mentioned above.
Yet, these are juxtaposed often with images of stunning beauty; we watch, completely fascinated, as the characters journey through the most spectacularly peculiar rock formations, eroded by millennia of wind and water. The result is this striking tapestry, a battleground where myth, reality and art collide to form a poetic and lasting truth.
The heart of the film though is, of course, Callas’ Medea. Without question, hers is a tale steeped in tragedy; she is wrenched from her home and her culture, betraying the Gods whom she had previously dedicated her life to absolutely. Medea gives her heart to Jason, who in turn abandons her to marry the lucrative Corinthian princess Glauce.
How clearly life can imitate art! Undoubtedly the plight of Medea is something Callas acutely understood, for the actress had by this time lost the two most important things of her life: her voice, and her Onassis.
Still, Maria Callas’ devotion to artistic perfection has remained —perhaps it is even stronger than it ever was before. And as Medea, she is captivating. Maria does not sing; in fact, she speaks barely a few words throughout the film, yet her presence is almost overwhelming. Above is a still from the scene in which Medea first steps foot on foreign land. Finally, the finality of her situation dawns on her; she is among people whom she cannot and will never understand. She has been torn from her ancient world into one on the brink of civilisation as we know it. She calls plaintively to her gods, lost and frightened, but to no avail. She slowly begins to lose her mind.
The closing scene of Medea is arguably the most haunting of all. After killing her sons, Medea sets fire to her home and watches Jason standing below her, begging to hold his children one last time. She defiantly denies him this final wish, and clings onto her sons as the heavy smoke begins to rise.