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Medea

now playing at the Orson Welles

MEDEA REQUIRES of the audience not a suspension of disbelief but a suspension of twentieth-century consciousness. It conforms to none of our traditional requirements for a believable plot, lifelike characters, coherent narrative, and psychological motivation. Nor, by all accounts, does it have much to do with the Euripides play on which it is based.

Medea is instead a powerful evocation of another era, albeit one which probably never existed. The film is prefaced with a centaur recounting to his four-year-old adopted son the true details of his ancestry as the child sits watching him. The centaur talks on, with many references to kings, captures, and so forth. "Do you understand?" he asks. Cutting back to the naked child, we see him gazing into the sky. "Oh well," the centaur continues. "It's a difficult story. It's so full of deeds, not thoughts."

Medea too is full of event and very little overt thinking. The son, Jason, grows up--in the space of about three cuts--and goes to reclaim the usurped kingdom of Corinth from his uncle, King Creon. The uncle sends him off to Colchis, a land of magic, to win the Golden Fleece, and when Jason returns with it tells him that he doesn't feel like keeping his promise. Jason also brings back with him Medea, a daughter of the king of Colchis.

But the plot, as the centaur says, is just deeds, and what gives this film its peculiar and forceful immediacy is the spirit in which these bizarre and seemingly unmotivated events are accepted. Director Pier Paolo Pasolini takes his story readymade, as he did earlier (1964) in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. He makes no attempt to explain why such things came about, but merely how they must have happened--and how they appear to the participants, not to a modern audience. Taking Christ's life, he worked with Romans and peasants, shepherds and carpenters. With the story of Medea, he must deal with centaurs and magic and frequent killings.

Medea comes from Colchis and is something of a sorceress. In Corinth, she loses her powers although it is never quite clear exactly what they were. In the same way the Golden Fleece loses its meaning, as Jason ruefully admits to King Creon when he presents it to him. The earthly, naturalistic life in Colchis with its many bloody rituals is contrasted to the more civilized life of Corinth, where people live in houses and walk on tended lawns. Medea, more pagan than Jason, misses her old life, and Jason, who neglects her, is little comfort. Using what little magic is left to her, she contrives to murder the princess who has replaced her in Jason's heart, but her own children she kills with a knife.

OR ANCIENT man," the centaur has told the young Jason, "myths and rituals are a regular part of existence." Employing the approach of neo-realism, Pasolini renders convincing a completely fantastic story and setting. This might be--as we watch the peasants file past, each dipping a finger in the bowl of a sacrificed victim's blood--a documentary made by time-traveling anthropologists. Magic has its place in this society, but the common people are close to the land, to nature. The landscapes--mountains and deserts, blazing skies, sun-baked cliffs riddled with cave-dwellings--surround Medea until she returns with Jason to Corinth. Much time is spent in movement across the countryside--walking, sitting in horsecarts, pacing and filing in ritual order. The omnipresence of the land, and later, Medea's enclosure in palaces, rooms, buildings, gives much more of a feeling for the actual circumstances of the story than any amphitheatre or stage could ever achieve.

The conflicting characters of Jason and Medea provide the same interplay between real and fabulous. Medea, leaving her homeland with her new lower Jason, purposefully kills her brother and cuts him into pieces. These she carefully deposits in the path of her pursuing father, who must pause to pick up each bit and prepare it for burial. Thus she escapes with the eminently human Jason, a healthy young man who beds Medea with a cheeky grin at the camera.

With hardly a word Maria Callas conveys the extremes of Medea's superhuman passions--her obsession, turning to jealousy, for Jason; her tender love for her children; and the cold cruelty of revenge and finality with which she kills her two sons. She does not act but rather moves with naturalness, with complete assurance and belief in herself.

Jason (played by Giuseppe Gentile), robust, curly-haired and cheerfully handsome, adds the touch of reality that is the core of Pasolini's treatment. "The unreality of the real" is another phrase of the centaur's, and Jason exemplifies it. Lightheartedly he sails off in search of the Golden Fleece, takes Medea when she falls in love with him, gives up his kingdom when his uncle breaks his promise and won't cede it to him. He winks at his girl cousins when he first sees them standing in demure attendance round their father the king. Without any outward signs of wonder, he accepts the magical rituals he sees in Colchis and the incredible tales of the centaur. Without much conscience he determines to marry Creon's daughter and gain the kingdom that way. Watching this paragon of stolid believingness and believableness, the audience is drawn by him into belief in Medea.

WHILE THERE is a lot of incident, there is little plot, and ultimately the film is simply an immersion into another style of thought and existence for a little under two hours. Its effect lasts longer. Eschewing the lengthy narrative passages and character development of a more usual kind of movie, Pasolini has the opportunity to create an entire other world without digressing. The scenery and costumes are meticulously detailed and beautiful to see. The music--all of it naturally accounted for by the presence of musicians rather than transparently added to heighten moods--is mostly the plucking of a sort of guitar. There is very little dialogue, most of which, in fact, is rather badly dubbed--even in this, the original Italian version (with subtitles). I actually felt a sense of relief each time the camera cut from a speaking character to the listener or the speaker turned his back. This lack of dialogue strengthens the film's tangibility by having people do things rather than speak them, and it gives the impression of a pre-literate society in which few people but the centaur have much to talk about. Nor does Pasolini, Except for the centaur's prologue, there's no telling, just showing.

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