In 1969, Pier Paolo Pasolini directed a film version of the classic tale of Medea. Maria Callas, the infamous operatic diva, played the title role and sang not a single note. In 1969, I was attending lots of “art films” shown at the University of Minnesota where I was a new faculty member. “Medea” was not among the choices. In fact, I only just saw the film on the recommendation of a good friend. The story is known to many: Medea becomes furious at her husband, Jason, for his philandering with another woman. He puts her aside to marry the younger woman and Medea, seriously bent on revenge, causes the new bride to burn alive, kills her and Jason’s two children, denies him burial rites of his sons, and finally immolates herself.
What’s amazing is the visualization of this tale by Pasolini and his expert crew. Never have I seen mythic time made believable. The sets are mammoth but not quite buildings as we know them; the landscape is uniformly beige because of all the sand. Characters wear masks that are humanoid but not quite human and their movements resemble sheep or lemmings, moving as a great group rather than as several individuals. For the first segment, we watch in frozen fascination as the group performs a ritual in which a young man is hacked into small bits that are eaten by the masked populace after blood from the corps has been spread on vegetation in the belief that it will help things grow. The music is neither tonal nor atonal; it is just raucous sound executed at a high and consistent decibel level. I felt I was being thrown back to a time and place before regimented time or tamed civilization. And as Medea loses hold on her sanity and propels herself and those close to her deeper and deeper into revenge with all its self-consuming capacity, I also felt that Pasolini and the Greeks who first wrote about her were coming to understand a trajectory away from the herd instinct of early humans and toward a more individualized idea of life and death.
As I watched this stunning visualization of one of Western culture’s major classical tragedies, I kept asking myself why I had to wait forty-five years to see what Pasolini was able to realize in his filming. As a feminist, I am constantly caught up short at what no one has bothered to tell me, to show me, to guide me toward knowing. When I taught Women’s Studies, I told students to ask constantly “Who benefits from this?” If I resurrect that old question and turn it on this gripping film, my answer is halting but certain: No one. So I thought to write about my experience with wild-eyed and fierce Maria Callas in her only film role, so others in the cinematic dark along with me might get this movie and be caught up in its sweeping orbit. You won’t regret the effort.