Medea is a film by Pier Paolo Pasolini based on the plot of Euripides’ Medea. Filmed in Göreme Open Air Museum’s early Christian churches, it stars opera singer Maria Callas in her only film role. She does not sing in the movie.
The first half sums up the story of Jason and the Argonauts as they travel to Medea’s barbarian land in search of the golden fleece. In fitting with the soundtrack (which features North African tribal music), Pasolini depicts Medea’s people as a tribal people who perform rituals and sacrifices to secure their harvests. Their costumes and dances are based on those of Eastern European Mummers such as the Romanian Calusari ceremonies and their counterparts in the Balkans.
A young man is offered up as a human sacrifice and his organs and blood are sprinkled over the crops in a ritual sparagmos. The victim is bound to a wooden structure and killed and dismembered, and the villagers fertilize crops with his body and blood.
Meanwhile, Jason and his comrades have arrived and are shown pillaging the locals. Medea awakens her brother Absyrtus to help her steal the Golden Fleece, which they then deliver to Jason. The Argonauts hastily depart from Colchis, with horsemen from her village in hot pursuit. When the Colchians begin closing in, Medea kills her brother and dismembers his body, in a manner similar to the sacrificial victim of the sparagmos ritual earlier. Her father’s men are then forced to halt and retrieve the scattered pieces of his son’s body, enabling Jason and Medea to escape.
When they return to Jason’s homeland as husband and wife, Medea is stripped of her ornate barbarian garb and dressed in the garments of a traditional Greek housewife. The film generally follows the plot of the play by Euripides from this point onward, though it takes some liberties with the chronology of events.
Jason has two sons by Medea, but he later decides to opt out of his union with her in favor of a marriage to the Corinthian princess Glauce. Enraged, Medea plots revenge against Jason and his new bride and sends Glauce a robe bewitched with magic herbs.
Here Pasolini introduces two versions of the destruction of Glauce and her father. The first follows the traditional legend and is possibly a vision of how Medea would like Glauce to die, as her face is superimposed over several shots. When the princess puts on the robe, the garment catches fire and burns her alive, along with her father Creon, who attempts to douse the flames.
The second version Glauce put on the robe that Medea wore when she served as High Priestess. Glauce, looking in the mirror, cries out and runs to the walls and leaps to her death. Her father follows her, and jumps to his death also.
Medea then proceeds to kill her own sons by Jason and sets fire to their house. She refuses to give Jason the bodies of their children for burial. Instead she keeps them from him, while he is held back by the fire she has lit, telling him that nothing can be done anymore.