Pasolini takes a unique approach to Medea. He jettisons all but a few lines of Euripides, and begins the narrative many years before the action of the play. Most strikingly, he shoots almost the entire film in a documentary-like style. And, with a couple of notable exceptions, he creates a picture with almost no dialogue, although the soundtrack features an astonishing musical score (put together by Pasolini) of native North African wind and percussion music (20 years before Peter Gabriel's score for Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, which was clearly inspired by Pasolini). If that was not enough to offend purists, in the title role he cast perhaps the most famous opera diva of the century, Maria Callas, in her only film appearance, and then gave her almost no lines (and the few she had were dubbed). Perhaps if audiences had known a bit more about what to expect from the film, they would have seen what was on the screen, instead of what Pasolini consciously - and often brilliantly - stripped away from his sources.
He opens with a witty prologue in which an unforgettable Centaur lectures baby Jason about his mythical lineage. So many gods and goddesses are mentioned in this breathless monologue, that the overwhelmed kid falls over backwards, sound asleep. (There is perhaps as much dialogue in these first three minutes as in the rest of the film.) Then Pasolini plunges us into Medea's world. In one of the film's most astonishing sequences, we witness, and feel, every moment of the ritual sacrifice of a young man, whose blood the people of Colchis smear over the plants and trees, to ensure the continued fertility of their land. Pasolini's artistry makes this event as poetic and authentic (indigenous North Africans, not extras from Central Casting, enact the Colchians) as it is gruesome. You may have read about such ancient rites in anthropology, but Pasolini depicts it unflinchingly. And he shows us, in visceral terms, exactly what kind of world produced Medea, whose revenge will be enacted years later on her faithless husband.
Throughout, Pasolini invests every shot with a haunting, ripely sensuous look, almost always grounded in a cinéma vérité style. The film literally glows like burnished bronze, with many shots done at the "magic hour," just before sunset, which naturally provides an orange/gold sheen. The major stylistic exception is the scenes in the court of King Creon (played by Massimo Girotti, star of Visconti's 1941 film Ossessione), where Pasolini drolly mimics Eisenstein's expressionistic designs from that masterpiece of political intrigue, Ivan the Terrible (1943-1946).
Much of Medea's enormous power comes from the naturalistic performances, ranging from the leads to the many minor characters. This is what the Argonauts might really have been like, a group of mostly quiet young men, doing their jobs, enjoying the thrill of battle when the opportunity arises, and gawking at the strange sights of Colchis's radically foreign culture. Giuseppe Gentile creates a complex Jason whom we believe a powerful woman like Medea could fall passionately in love with, who is devoted to his children, yet who is so fickle, not to mention hungry for power, that he would throw over his wife of 10 years to marry the daughter of his enemy, King Creon, as a backhanded way of regaining his throne.
Pasolini draws a monumental performance from Maria Callas, who uses her few lines of dialogue to great effect. Simply by using her face and body, Callas suggests - with a subtlety unexpected from an opera diva - Medea's immense range of emotions, from heartbreaking tenderness to volcanic rage.
Perhaps the best way to enjoy Pasolini's Medea is to put aside thoughts of Euripides, and later versions by such dramatists as Seneca, Pierre Corneille, and Jean Anouilh, not to mention Hollywood extravaganzas like Jason and the Argonauts (whether the fun 1963 version, with Ray Harryhausen's special effects wizardry, or the bland TV mini-series from 2000). Experience Pasolini's mesmerizing film on its own starkly beautiful terms, and you will find a unique vision not only of the ancient Mediterranean, recreated with what feels like astonishing fidelity, but of the tortured interplay of love, desire, and unspeakable revenge, which can be as current as the latest crime of passion.
The film itself is good, although it doesn't reach the heights of Pasolini's earlier Oedipus Rex. The film is very slow, lacking a great deal of dialogue, until it explodes at the very end. It's a little convaluted, and I highly advise reading a summary of the story before delving into the film.
While Medea isn't Pasolini's best film, it's certainly not his worst DVD. Worth a rental, at least.