Medea (1969 film)

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Medea (1969 film).jpg
Directed byPier Paolo Pasolini
Written byPier Paolo Pasolini
Based onMedea by Euripides
Produced byFranco Rossellini
StarringMaria Callas
CinematographyEnnio Guarnieri
Edited byNino Baragli
Music byPier Paolo Pasolini
Elsa Morante
Release date
Running time
106 minutes
West Germany

Medea is a 1969 Italian film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, based on the ancient myth of Medea. Filmed in Göreme Open Air Museum's early Christian churches, Pisa, and the Citadel of Aleppo, it stars opera singer Maria Callas in her only film role. She does not sing in the movie.

The film is largely a faithful portrayal of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts and the events of Euripides' play The Medea concerning the betrayal of Medea by Jason and his eventual demise at her hands.

The film was received positively by critics but did not receive commercial success. According to film commentator Tony Rayns the film represents a committedly adversarial piece of art from the director who loved to challenge society. Rayns calls the film "a love song to Maria Callas" and describes the ending as "backing him (Pasolini) into a cul-de-sac" for the dark ending of the film which almost seems like a resignation from cultural production.[1] Indeed, Pasolini's dramatic and adverse personality is very much alive in this film which depicts Medea's murder of her husband, children and her husband's lover.


Everything is holy and the whole of Nature appears unnatural to our eyes. When everything seems normal to you in nature, then everything will be over! - The centaur Chiron's advice to young Jason

In the city of Iolcus in Greece the king Aeson has been removed from power by his half-brother Pelias who becomes a cruel tyrant mad with power. Jason, the son of Aeson, is sent to the centaur Chiron to be hidden away where Pelias can not get him. A powerful relic has been collected in Colchis which had belonged to Phrixus in the past. The golden skin had belonged to a sacred goat sent by the gods to save the boy and his sister Helle from certain death. The goat has flown the boy across the Dardanelles to Colchis though losing the girl along the way. Phrixus and the goat have arrived in Colchis where Phyrsus is sacrificed and the goat is skinned. The skin is given as a gift to the god of war Ares.

In the prologue of the film the centaur Chiron teaches the young boy Jason philosophical truths about the world and tells him about the voyage he will one day embark on to Colchis. Medea and the land of Colchis are also depicted. Colchis houses the Golden Fleece and is home to many bizarre rituals. A human sacrifice is performed in front of hundreds of cheering onlookers. A young man is offered up as a human sacrifice and his organs and blood are sprinkled over the crops in a ritual sparagmos. It is presided over by the Queen Medea. Jason grows up and travels to Iolcus where he challenges Pelias to the throne. Pelias says he can have the kingdom if he retrieves for him the Golden Fleece from Colchis on the other side of the world. Jason assents. Meanwhile Medea has a vision of Jason and is so enraptured with him that she asks her brother Absyrtus to help steal the fleece in preparation for his arrival.

They travel far into the wilderness where they eventually join the Argonauts who have been marching to Colchis. The King and the Colchians realize that the fleece has been stolen from under them. They pursue Medea and intend to retrieve the fleece. Medea realizes that the Colchians are chasing them and so she kills her brother and dismembers his body so that they are forced to stop and collect his remains. Her father's men then halt and retrieve the scattered pieces of his son's body, enabling Jason and Medea to escape. After collecting the pieces of his dead son, the King returns to Colchis where he has a burial ceremony performed for his son to soothe his crying wife. Meanwhile, Medea returns with the Argonauts to Greece where she has a spiritual crisis after realizing how completely alien Greek practices are from the rituals of her eastern homeland.

When they return to Iolcus, they deliver the fleece to Pelias who reneges on his promise. Deciding the fleece has little power after all, Jason accepts this decision. Medea is stripped of her ornate ethnic garb and dressed in the garments of a traditional Greek housewife. Jason dismisses the Argonauts and after spending the night making love to Medea he decides to head for the city of Corinth. In Corinth, Jason sees a vision of two centuars, Chiron, the centaur who raised him and one "newer" human version of Chiron. Only the newer human Chiron is permitted to speak as the older one's dialogue would be incomprehensible to Jason. Chiron has a philosophical dialogue with Jason and tells him that Medea is torn between her past ritualistic self, the self that performed the human rituals in Colchis and the new less spiritual Greek self. Medea bears Jason two sons though Jason grows more and more distant from her. He grows tired of Medea and decides to pursue a political marriage to a Corinthian princess, Glauce. Creusa's father Creon is afraid of Medea's wrath and particularly her dark magic. He has her exiled from his land because he is afraid for his daughter who is not to blame for Jason's fickle heart.

The enraged Medea plots revenge against Jason and his new bride. She is driven by the words of Creon and of her own handmaidens who view her a dark sorceress. She calls for Jason and pretends to be happy and accepting of his new marriage. She tells Jason that her one wish is that the King does not banish her two loving children which she has born to Jason. Jason accepts and goes to Creon to ask that of him. Meanwhile Medea asks her children to send Glauce a robe bewitched with magic herbs. Although Medea intends for the poison to cause the princess and her father, Creon, to burst into flames; instead Glauce sees a reflection of Medea in her mirror and feels all the pain and turmoil within her. She rushes to the walls of the city where she commits suicide by plunging over the side to her death. The king rushes after her and is so moved to grief that he commits suicide as well.

Medea is driven into a frenzy and kills her and Jason's sons and sets fire to their house. Held back by the fire, Jason pleads with Medea to let the children have a proper burial. From the midst of the flames, she refuses: "It is useless! Nothing is possible anymore!"


Relation to Euripides' play[edit]

The film does not use the dialogue written by Euripides but the plot does closely follow the structure of his play. The beginning portions of the film also follow the early life of Jason and his voyage to Colchis where he meets Medea.


For the score, Pasolini chose eastern music from Tibet and the Orient because prehistoric music was not re-creatable. According to musicologist Jon Solomon from The Sound of Cinematic Antiquity: “For the rituals in Colchis he (Pasolini) selected Tibetan chant for the elders, Persian santur music for general Colchian atmosphere, and Balkan choral music, characterized by a female chorus doubling in two parts a second apart, for the women promoting the growth of new crops with the blood of the young victim of sparagmos, the Greek Dionysiac ritual of dismemberment.” I believe I also heard Japanese traditional music during the screening.[2]

Filming locations[edit]

The film was shot between May 1969 - August 1969.

Home video release[edit]

The film was released on Blu-ray in Region 2 by the British Film Institute and was also made available on the BFI Player streaming service.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tony Rayns on Arabian Nights
  2. ^ "Pasolini, Maria Callas, and a Worldly Medea | Untimely Thoughts".
  3. ^ "Medea (1969) - IMDb".

External links[edit]