Any familiarity with the Euripides’ classic Greek tragedy will have you already guessing what the outcome of Andrea Pallaoro’s directorial debut will yield, but that’s not to say it doesn’t take a quietly lyrical journey of meditative visuals to get us there. Neither a modernization nor necessarily influenced by the classical piece the title invokes, Pallaoro instead seems to use it as the sole dramatic flair to material that’s intended to be a multi-focal portrait of an imploding familial unit, and despite a predictable finale manages to lull us into a hypnotic state where passion and heartbreak are conveyed as quietly as whispering winds through haze filled fields.
We glimpse an idyllic familial unit warmly enjoying each other’s company one late summer afternoon, with patriarch Ennis (Brian F. O’Byrne) carousing with the youngest two of his five children with Christina (Catalina Sandino Moreno), who is hearing impaired. The click of a camera announces the film’s title, and this is the last we are to see them all happy together. Unfolding like a sweltering summer day, where even minutes begrudgingly pass by in an endless onslaught, we observe Ennis, a dairy farmer, go about his daily routine.
The children interact with their mother, while the eldest teenage daughter has found the first bloom of romance with a young man she sneaks away with. Ennis silently, almost menacingly, seems to observe Christina from afar, and we get the sense that some type of disconnect has occurred between them but we don’t know when or why. Soon, we see Christina take the three youngest with her on a trip to a gas station where she lets them play on their own while she engages in more adult proclivities with the young man operating the station. One of her youngest boys spies on their lovemaking and is convinced his mother will now die of AIDS. Slowly, the quiet stillness within their home gives way to a menacing tension, where Ennis can barely contain his glowering emotions as Christina retreats into her own fantasy. While the children can tell that something’s wrong, they’re oblivious to what’s about to happen as everyone is engaged in their own search for love and affection.
Pallaoro asserts that all her characters in this familial unit have a need and are each on their own unpredictable journeys to find fulfillment. While Ennis and Christina’s children could very well, in the vaguest possible sense, represent a sort of rough model for Maslow’s hierarchy of need (that’s a bit of stretch), there’s nothing remotely unpredictable about anything going on in Medeas. However, there’s an earthy pleasure to be enjoyed in Chayse Irvin’s cinematography, with framed shots that always seem to be prowling around corners when inside the family home like some kind of stout pet (the family dog gets the short end of the stick here, too) and whose exterior shots of hopelessly arid pastures captures a yellowed out landscape that evokes The Burning Plain or Willa Cather.
There’s scant dialogue throughout, an element enhanced of course by the hearing impairment of the mother. This helps us focus on the slight emotional cues of the rest of the family, with Christina herself in a vacant, far off place while O’Byrne seems constantly on the cusp of desperation. Scenes where he’s alone with their baby are sadly moving and tensely nerve-wracking. Surely, he has the more sympathetic role here, even with his tendency to channel his repressed emotions through sputtered bits of violence. Moreno is always an intriguing presence, and her silent housewife is as an arresting focal point whenever she’s on screen. While Pallaoro isn’t exploring anything innately revolutionary here, she seems influenced by the likes of Malick, and expertly utilizes diegetic sound to convey a visual rhythm of objects in discord.
Reviewed on September 1 at the Venice Film Festival Screening Room