In White Trash the historian Nancy Isenberg writes about social class in the United States. Somewhere in the book she mentions a Hollywood film that used authentic working class people from the rural south. The director wanted to be realistic. When the producer saw the hillbillies, he had them replaced with actors. Not because the hillbillies were required to act and failed. The producers thought that the unkempt appearance of these deprived people would disturb and repel American cinema audiences. No doubt Pier Paolo Pasolini had his production problems but his films are distinguished by the presence of the poor labourers of southern Italy. The rural poor may have bad teeth and wrinkles but Pasolini needed them for his pastoral vision. In the introduction to Medea the centaur proclaims that ‘there is nothing natural in the natural world’. There is no reason to believe that a centaur understands the natural world but he has a point. What exists and what we ignore are wonder and mystery. Our true inheritance is a planet complicated by billions of years of history. That environmental change was not designed. What happened to the oceans and the land before industrialisation was both inevitable and authentic. Pasolini argued that this magic and wonder could only be appreciated by humans unspoilt by modern society and crass capitalism. His centaur reveals that the corruption began before industrialisation. He claims that everything is sacred but holiness is a curse. This we realise is how the hierarchy began. We surrendered to people who had no idea of what made us blessed but who could impose discipline and pretend it was piety.
Medea is a visual feast. The landscape and costumes are fabulous and exotic but Pasolini does not ask his audience to admire his imagination. Compared to Medea the designs in modern movies, although often impressive, feel like excess decoration intended merely to add inconsequential distinction. In the tribal community imagined by Pasolini theatre and performance are not something that exist as separate entities. Together they are an essence that was tasted in everyday existence. Pasolini was a Marxist. He bought the dialectic version of history and believed in his own didactic responsibilities. The exotic imagery in Medea is a reminder that history books or trips to monuments can inform but they will never reveal the splendour of the past. Life and people were different then.
The main plot in Medea begins with the sacrifice of a young man. His head and limbs are removed. His blood is shared amongst the people in his community. They all take a couple of sips. The blood is then used to fertilise the ground and invoke a good harvest. As the great bluesman B B King almost said, we are talking about the primitive here, don’t you know? The narrative that follows in Medea is fanciful but simple. In the original play by Euripides all the scenes were two handers, Medea talking to someone else. It may have been this dialectical construction that attracted Pasolini to the play. Euripides emphasises the clashes between Medea and others. Pasolini retains some of the personal conflict but he also compares societies as well as individuals. As well as being betrayed by Jason, Medea is also a victim of history and the imperial ambition of Jason and his followers. Medea resists and fights the intruders. Her resistance, though, does not translate into heroism. Instead the actions of Medea make her corrupt, and she loses human feeling.
Medea lives on Colchis, an island that has primitive rituals. Despite fathering her three children Jason abandons her for the daughter of the King Of Corinth. The daughter is younger, and Corinth is a more advanced and materialistic civilisation. Before the film is finished Medea will have killed her brother, her own three children and caused the death of the King of Corinth and his daughter. There are two cinematic versions of Medea that are important. In 1988 Lars Von Trier filmed a script by the great ascetic aesthetic Carl Dryer. The version taken from the Dryer script emphasises the personal tragedy, the impact of betrayal and the need for revenge and to have the last word against an enemy that was once loved. Dryer also had his polemical moments and he could be critical of the attitudes of authority but he was no leftie. If Dryer adds a modern perspective, it is Freudian rather than Marxist. For Pasolini the tragedy of Medea includes not just the loss of a love but also seeing her world and the primitivism that gave her power and worth being destroyed. Although Medea uses her magic to destroy the woman that Jason wants to marry, her actions require a visit from her dead father to convince Medea that she can still be destructive, magical and potent. Medea has her vengeance but she is reduced, as is her world. The violence that she had known before Jason was not wilful aggression but acts that honoured her land, gods and existence. The final scene confirms what we suspected from the beginning. Medea and Jason and their two different worlds are lost to each other, separated by an uncontrollable fire. This violence is not part of a narrow ritual but wanton and out of control.
The motives of Medea are vindictive and inspired by a hatred of Jason and a physical connection that cannot be destroyed. She also realises that because of the alternative world of Corinth and its seduction of Jason there is no place for her children to now exist. Or in other words Pasolini has his ideological cake and eats it. This fusion between what could be two opposing interpretations of not just the play by Euripides but human nature is what makes the Pasolini version of Medea fabulous and a classic movie. Since the play by Euripides we have had the modern world and urban discontent when the poor have destroyed the homes of their neighbours and the prospects for their children. It might hurt but it is a way of denying a conquering world the expected triumph.
Pasolini chose Maria Callas to play Medea. Photographs of them working together and enjoying the company of each other still exist. The opportunity for them to discuss Marxist theory would have been limited. Callas was a jet-setter and she enjoyed the company of the rich. Pasolini, though, did not seek friends amongst those on the left. The Italian Communist Party expelled him in 1949. In 1969, when students and the police faced each other across the barricades, Pasolini sympathised with the police. He said the policemen were poor folk doing a job for people who told them lies. Pasolini described the students as left wing fascists. The man has to be given credit for prescience. In Britain most of those students welcomed Thatcher and neoliberalism. They were also seduced by the technology that Pasolini felt was destroying human experience. Today it is difficult for young people to understand the vehemence many in the 60s felt for the modern technological world. Something happened and, rather than think about history and what may have been lost, people turned to geography and looked at the poorer parts of the world. If that was the past, they were not interested. In 1969, though, people like Pasolini remembered abandoned community and a natural world that was being treated with contempt. At the end of the film we hear Medea scream that it is hopeless now. What was lost cannot be reclaimed and that applies to the natural world, Medea and us.
Callas is good as Medea. Her iconic status, celebrity and strong facial features make her an imposing presence. She is believable as the powerful wronged woman. The clash between her and Jason has to have consequence. The behaviour of Royalty to each other through the centuries has been often violent and appalling. This is how rulers operate when their power and status are at stake.
There are fine moments in Medea. Neither the landscape nor the music has anything to do with Greece but together they persuade us that we are watching and hearing an unknowable world. The villagers chase Jason off the island. This is marvellous, as is the sea journey when we see a bored Jason being anything but impressive. Medea kills her brother, and in the legend and the play this makes sense but in the film the point of the slaying is lost. The murder of the three children, though, is very effective. Medea loves these children. She cannot see a future for her or them. Anger has been replaced by resignation. Unable to nurture she is obliged to destroy.
Pasolini was murdered when he was 53 years old. The initial reaction was that it happened because of his gay sex life. He was, though, killed by a violent gang. They may have been gangsters or right wing fanatics who objected to his politics. By the time of his death Pasolini had become celibate. Pasolini had said that modern man did not appeal to him. They smell different, he said. He meant from how they should smell. His most popular films were based on bawdy and historical tales. They made him money but also provided some therapy. Pasolini was able to imagine people as he thought they should be – lusty, unashamed, a little smelly and not bored by comfort and relentless indulgence, people able to go outside and fill their nostrils with fresh air.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.