Recently, I’ve begun wrestling with my interpretation of Pasolini as a sloppy filmmaker. I’ve always been a fan of his films and I’ve appreciated his contributions to other fields, but I’ve always viewed his work as being earnest in terms of content but rough around the edges when it comes to form. I feel like I’m still being unfair because there was once a time where such camerawork would have been greatly appreciated by myself, and I still enjoy Pasolini’s documentary impulses. The reading of his work as “sloppy” was never strictly an aesthetic one, but one that also addresses the way his ideas manifest. In this particular case, this might be his sloppiest movie, a nearly incomprehensible mess, but it’s filled with such life that it ultimately works.
A centaur appears to us sets up the story with a fair amount of economy: Jason must retrieve a golden fleece from a barbaric colony that is ruled by Medea. The barbarianism is represented with great detail: a main is sacrificed and his blood is used as something of a fertilizer. Jason arrives, which alerts Medea. She gets her brother to help her retrieve the fleece and the two then give it to Jason. Later, Medea kills her brother to distract the reinforcement that the kingdom sends. Medea and Jason become romantically linked, which leads to her being stripped of her ornate clothing replaced with a more traditional dress.
I only describe the film up to about the one hour mark, and it’s at this point that it begins to lose me. The plot happens a bit more organically than my description implies. For a solid 2/3 the film serves as an almost ethnographic documentary about a group of people who never really existed. Pasolini recreates a fictional civilization in a thoroughly convincing way, not unlike the way he does in Oedipus Rex. A visual comparison between him and Herzog might not be unwise, but I wouldn’t force a further connection between the two filmmakers. It’s to Pasolini’s credit that he’s able to construct something that feels like a document of another time, but a consciously fictitious one. The costuming here is so bizarre and silly, but the audience is expected to digest it as easily as it is expected to digest a graphic human sacrifice.
For all of the energy in Pasolini’s images, it is hard to deny that he does still get around to them in an odd, idiosyncratic way. It might not be that Pasolini’s camera work is sloppy, but instead that his editing is. It’s not nearly as noticeable here as it is in his earlier films, but the film does appear to be constructed in a clunky way. The aforementioned documentary tone persists for most of the film, but the final thirty minutes sort of drag just because they seem to be constructed in a fairly different way. This might be intentional as Pasolini’s own Porcile switches between two stories, which are very different formally. Even if it was a conscious decision, it doesn’t exactly seems like a particularly smart choice on Pasolini. Then again, it’s this sort of stuff that sort of contributes to the way people (myself included) have mythologized him.
This is not a film I feel comfortable engaging on a particularly deep analytical context from only one viewing. Ideas from the rest of Pasolini’s career seem to pass through so quickly, like a river flowing with the filmmaker’s ideology and personal indulgences. The most superficial of which is the way he photographs Giuseppe Gentile, who plays Jason. The sensual connection with the male body is a far too attribute commonly credited to queer male filmmakers (see also Murnau’s Tabu, any of Gus Van Sant’s artier films) and I hesitate to make a big deal of it here. Instead, I find more interest in the way he photographs Maria Callas, which with some reverence. Like many of the women in Pasolini’s films, she is a saint, if only in the way she’s photographed. Earlier in the film, I subconsciously started linking Medea as the mother, perhaps through associating it with Oedipus Rex. I’d like to think it comes from Pasolini’s framing of Callas. It makes sense when the film’s vocabulary builds almost entirely on visuals, without much dialogue.
I hope the last sentence resonates as I find the true vitality in Pasolini’s film present in this impulse. There’s so much going on here and it’s easy to get lost in the insane trappings of the film’s fantasy world (it opens with a centaur and never really “settles” down afterwards) especially when Pasolini’s presentation kind of expects the audience member to accept this as something of a realistic study. My biggest problem with the film is that it ultimately can’t maintain its momentum long enough to be just a weird, visceral experience. If so, I might be tempted to call it the filmmaker’s best. Instead, it’s an interesting expression from one of cinema’s truly fascinating personalities.