QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM LOCARNO
This is a movie about deserts, both physically and of the mind. It features a character so fully realised and so compelling, we could easily follow her in and out of her emotional and spiritual turmoil for hours upon end. Georgian actress Tinatin Dalakishvili stars as a Russian woman based on the classic Greek myth, completely in command of her craft as she commits atrocious deeds while attempting to look for redemption for her sins.
The film is structured around an act of atonement, the titular character confessing her wrongdoings in an Orthodox Church somewhere in Israel. We begin in medias res, with her reciting her and her husband’s (Evgeniy Tsyganov) plans to move from Russia to the Holy Land, taking advantage of his Jewish heritage to build a new life together. The Greek Myth is transplanted to the modern phenomenon of post-Soviet immigration to Israel, many Jews from Russia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine using the opportunity to leave their world behind for a country beset with its own myriad clashes of cultures and ideals.
Is a new life possible or are you always bringing yourself and the baggage of your life with you? Even if you have a home, whether it’s in a settlement or in Jerusalem, can you be fully content? Medea suggests that Russian expats can never leave the past behind, using its mythical structure as a fascinating basis to explore both national identity and wider existential problems.
A rift forms in the relationship. To make up for it, she has sex with other men. Lots and lots of sex. Name a position and you’ll probably see it in this movie. But this is not just sex for the sake of it, but as an exploration of character. This is a woman in search of any way to reduce the natural aging process — whether through sex, religion or chemical solutions, she will stop at nothing in order to find a cure to the void at her centre. In the Holy Land, fulfilment is never far away either, suggesting that religion is basically a form of intercourse for the physically abstinent.
While these sex scenes will make the headlines, far more compelling scenes are found in the quiet conversations she has around Israel, whether its chats with a watch-maker about creating a watch that ticks backwards or a Mossad agent who can predict the future. It’s great to watch a film take its natural time, creating a unique journey of female self-fulfilment with a performance on a par with the likes of Tao Zhao in Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke, 2018) or Isabelle Huppert in Things To Come (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2016).
The ideas are so potent and the central character so fascinating, and the discourse so endless — I’m not getting into the myriad power dynamics at play here — it’s easy to forgive the winding, digressive road Medea takes. It’s not just about dialogue and character either, director Alexander Zeldovich keen to use cinematic language — through vast widescreen tableaus, surveillance-like long shots and primal imagery — to stress his points. This is greatly abetted by (and would be a very different film without) Alexey Retinsky’s score, evoking both Igor Stravinsky and Mica Levi in its experimentation, rhythmic presence and kitchen-sink collection of sounds, spanning choral music, techno rumblings and full-on expressionist orchestra to create a truly epic feel. At times it’s too much, but hey, when you swing for the fences, it’s worth hitting that ball as hard as you can.
After all, a film like Medea needs to be an epic. This is a proper myth of the desert, as resonant as any action-adventure or melodramatic journeyman story, a woman with a vast void at her centre trying anything that sticks to fill that hole. Made with true urgency and a sense of inevitability, Medea is cinema at its most spiritually probing. Just make sure to look past all the shagging.
Medea plays in Concorso internazionale at Locarno Film Festival, running from August 4th to 15th.