The great American wilderness is almost unimaginably vast. Emptiness stretches into nothingness, hills roll into mountains, and only a hardy few venture out there to live. Those that do find themselves tested by its unforgiving barrenness and the sheer isolation that comes with it, and it is this test that has fascinated so many American storytellers. Willa Cather and Walt Whitman both wrote about the pioneers who first stepped into that landscape, while more recently, visual filmmakers such as David Lowery and Kelly Reichardt have been drawn to the isolation of the great big nowhere. With Medeas, Andrea Pallaoro joins this great tradition of examining life on the edge, and the result is a film that is startling in its beauty and brutality.
A family of dairy farmers live in a geographically and historically indistinct part of America characterised by rainless, dusty fields and a comprehensive lack of other people. Without the noise of even a village to distract them, the family find other diversions. The deaf and mute mother visits a run down petrol station for an affair with a younger man while her kids play outdoors. The only daughter in the family learns Spanish to impress her secret boyfriend. The oldest son tattoos himself with a biro. The father of the family – looking suspiciously like Terrence Malick in one of the only existing photos of the reclusive director – just goes through the monotonous motions of his everyday life, growing increasingly suspicious and controlling of each member of his family.
Medeas is a film of moments – glimpses of a life far removed from our own. In spite of the escalating tension and the dryness of the landscape, there is real beauty here; the family share happy times amongst the hardship. The camera often lurks in the background, an outsider looking through a window pane or door frame as if to further isolate the family. One gets the impression that each frame is chosen very carefully by the director, and shots where multiple members of the family fill the screen are the most impressive – each face tells a different story, but demands the audience’s attention as the deep focus means you can choose which one to look at. Occasionally the film feels a little over-directed, with some shots so close that they crop half of the face off the screen – either a deliberate decision that doesn’t pay off or a sign of rushed shooting – but for the most part this is filmed with real verve and talent, and performed brilliantly, too.
The difficult conditions in which they live gives the family serious communication issues, which are further exacerbated by the mother’s speech and hearing impediments. This does leave the film, at times, feeling almost as distant as the characters, culminating in an ending that is incredibly shocking to those unfamiliar with Greek myths. As a study of family in total isolation, this is breathtaking cinema, but with the landscape functioning as an extra family member, driving the events of the film more than any of the humans, the resulting film is as bleak as it is beautiful. A difficult, but mesmerising feature début from the immensely promising Pallaoro.
Medeas is showing at the Edinburgh Film Festival on the 19th and 22nd June.