J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Medeas: Greek Tragedy in California

Euripides’ celebrated character might be a monster, but she is a tragic monster. The challenge to mounting each new adaptation comes in the balancing of audience sympathy and revulsion for her. Alas, poor Ennis gets precious little of the former. He will suffer many indignities without achieving any cathartic release. Greek tragedy comes to California scrub-grass country in Andrea Pallaoro’s Medeas (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

It takes a while to diagnose the troubles ailing Ennis’s family, because they speak so little. It is not necessarily due to poor lines of communication. His wife Christina is a deaf mute, so idle chatter really isn’t worth the effort. Initially, he seems like a strict, but loving father. Unfortunately, he is also a devout Christian, so he is likely in for some painful cinematic karma.

Indeed, his relationship with Christina has strained to the point she rather openly carries on with the local gas station attendant. In a moment of staggeringly irresponsible behavior, she allows their second oldest son (and the most rebellious) to see her in flagrante delicto. Meanwhile, in the wake of a persistent draught, Ennis’s credit is cut-off, jeopardizing his status as provider.

That probably makes Medeas sound plottier and more passionate than it really is. Ennis and his brood put the “hard” in hardscrabble and the “slow” in slow cinema. It is the sort of film that probably has more shots of the back of Ennis’s head than his eyes. Of course, that also makes it easier to objectify and dehumanize him.

This is definitely one family in search of Terrence Malick. Unfortunately, Pallaoro so thoroughly stacks the deck against Ennis and so defiantly keeps viewers at arm’s length, Medeas has nowhere near the emotional power of Malick protégé A.J. Edwards’ The Better Angels or Malick’s divisive To the Wonder. To their credit, Brían F. O’Byrne and Catalina Sandino Moreno completely inhabit the space their characters live in, yet it is still hard to engage with them. Nonetheless, cinematographer Chayse Irvin makes the thirsty Southern Californian landscape visually stunning, in a harsh, unforgiving way.

Often it is the case quietly deliberate, narratively ambiguous films either connect at a gut level or they don’t. It is always an idiosyncratic thing—one size does not fit all, but Medeas is particularly stingy in the hooks it provides the audience to help pull them through. Despite its conscious awareness of its own importance, it is hard to recommend Medeas beyond a small circle of anti-commercial cineastes when it opens tomorrow (1/16) in New York, at the Village East.