How much can you alter a time-honored story before it becomes something else entirely and loses its distinctive power? The irksome answer to this question lurks behind the haunting, frequently stunning compositions of Andrea Pallaoro’s Medeas, a reimagining of the myth of Medea in the American West.
Though classical variations of this tale usually center upon Medea’s otherworldly powers and/or the final body count, Pallaoro and co-writer Orlando Tirado’s changes lie in the tragedy’s setup. The betrayed partner is now the husband (Brían F. O'Byrne); the wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a deaf-mute; and their cattle farm is beset by a drought. Like a Terrence Malick film stripped of its daydreamy philosophical voiceover—or like Stop the Pounding Heart, another Italian-born director’s taciturn take on rural, Christian America—the couple and their large brood wordlessly kill time and annoy each other in and around their large, isolated farmhouse.
But their cloistered existence is at odds with one of the fundamental elements of the myth. In the original story, Jason’s betrayal of Medea is as devastating to her social standing as it is to her heart; they are royals, so his decision to enter an arranged marriage with someone else in order to please a neighboring king has resounding consequences. In Pallaoro and Tirado’s telling, though, there isn’t much of a community to serve as a backdrop to the events. The murder of the children (committed by the husband in this version) becomes solely a primal reflex—you hurt me, so I hurt you more—and an expression of absolute and total loss. Both options are fairly realistic motivations for a massacre, but they’re substantially less interesting dramatically or psychologically.
Of course, Pallaoro and Tirado’s decision to switch genders diminishes another key aspect of what is so captivating and horrifying about the myth: Medea’s choice to kill her children, along with her witchlike powers, makes her a profoundly subversive figure, which in turn provides the catharsis with its power. (Unfit mothers, or those even momentarily displaying unbecoming behavior, have continuously roused the passions of otherwise uninvolved people throughout history—look no further than Casey Anthony.) By contrast, the father in Medeas is a strong silent type who only speaks with his fists, most frequently taking his financial and marital frustrations out on his children. His sadism is timeless too, but his character comes across like a newspaper crime headline rather than an in-depth feature—large print splashed across a page without nuance or depth, solely existing to relay information. Pallaoro’s decides to end the film abruptly with the children sitting motionless in the family’s pickup, and the ambiguity of the final shot elides any hesitancy or glee on the father’s part, making him a dull stereotype. (In fiction, how you murder is more important than if you murder.)
But then, he’s not the only one who’s a tired cliché: the couple’s children are virtually indistinguishable, save for the pre-teen daughter, who’s experimenting with makeup and Italian pop music. (The film appears to be set in the Eighties, but where exactly she bought these cassette tapes is a mystery; the fact that she knows all the lyrics makes sense given that the family doesn’t even own a TV until three-quarters of the way into the film.) While the detail about the daughter’s musical interest lies somewhere between self-indulgence and a failed attempt to show that “this isn’t the real world,” Pallaoro and DP Chayse Irvin’s cinematography is consistently exquisite. Their ability to render already majestic landscapes and austere interiors sensitively is a rare gift, and one that impassionedly makes a case for theatrical exhibition.
Even if there are problems with the re-telling, the image of the father sullenly walking home from a trip to a bar at dusk remains haunting. Though it’s tempting to dismiss the film’s strong visuals as rejected footage from a Nineties cologne commercial, there are a million other ways to be bored or underwhelmed at the cinema. This one at least creates a little space to dream.