Medeas: Film Review

Stylish psychodrama shows great promise.

Italian-born director Andrea Pallaoro charts the breakdown of a California farming family in his visually ravishing but dramatically diffuse debut.

A lyrical contemporary twist on Greek tragedy shot in California by a young Italian director, Medeas made a modest splash at its world premiere in Venice last month. It comes with strong acting credentials, co-starring the Columbian former Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno alongside prize-winning Irish stage veteran Brían F. O’Byrne. They play California dairy farmers struggling with five kids, hard financial times and bitter marital tensions. The plot is diffuse and disjointed, but theater director Andrea Pallaoro’s feature debut scores highly with its exquisite beauty and fine performances. Very much a film for festival connoisseurs, distributor interest will be limited to discerning art-house circles.

Partly inspired by real events, the plot has an almost archetypal feel. Ennis (O’Byrne) is the sour, sullen patriarch, initially unsympathetic as he snaps his children into line with sharp words and angry scowls. Christina (Moreno) is his younger wife, a hearing-impaired Latina beauty no longer interested in conjugal intimacy. Instead she enjoys passionate trysts with the hunky local mechanic Noah (Kevin Alejandro), brazenly having sex in his trailer with her baby perched on the bed nearby and her young sons hovering perilously close outside. Their affair is one of those small-town secrets known to everybody, including Ennis.

Adhering to the "show, don’t tell" rule with commendable rigor, Medeas is low on both words and conventional dramatic exposition. The dialogue is minimal, perhaps mirroring the breakdown in communication that drives the tragic finale, as well as Christina’s deafness. Sound design is artfully deployed, with diegetic noises providing their own kind of quasi-musical narrative rhythm. The setting is also curiously timeless. Judging by the cars and clothes, the appearance of a Sony Walkman and a passing references to AIDS, the story takes places somewhere in a dusty corner of the 1980s. But reference points are few and far between.

In its favor, Medeas is ravishingly filmed on 35mm, mostly in carefully composed static shots of intimate domestic vignettes and lush Californian landscape. In ironic contrast to the slow-burn disaster brewing onscreen, the story takes place in an Instagram-fantasy West of fuzzy-gold sunsets, softly rolling hills and quaint wooden ranches. It was mostly shot around Simi Valley and Santa Clarita, north of L.A., where numerous vintage TV serials including Little House on the Prairie were made. But there is no folksy backwoods Americana here, just darkness beyond the edge of town.

Pallaoro is plainly a devotee of early Terrence Malick and Michelangelo Antonioni, defusing a potentially sensational plot with cool detachment and contemplative langor. But his technique is a little too self-consciously subtle, lingering on endless close-ups of lost souls staring dolefully into bathroom mirrors without providing adequate psychological context for their quiet desperation. Full of gorgeous moments, not quite a satisfying whole, Medeas is an impressive debut that promises greater things to come.

Production companies: Varient Pictures, Sixteen Frames
Producers: Jonathan Venguer, Gina Resnick, Kyle Heller, Eleonora Granata Jenkinson
Starring: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Brían F. O’Byrne, Kevin Alejandro, Ian Nelson, Mary Mouser
Director: Andrea Pallaoro
Writers: Andrea Pallaoro, Orlando Tirado
Cinematographer: Chayse Irvin
Editors: Arndt Peemoeller, Isaac Hagy
Sales company: Varient Pictures
Unrated, 97 minutes