Excerpts from
Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend

Arianna Huffington

Before they started shooting, [Pasolini] made some notes and showed them to Maria: "Medea watches Jason, enchanted, lost in him. It is a true and complete love; in this moment it is Jason's virility that prevails. Medea has lost her dazed manner, like a disoriented animal. Suddenly she finds in love which humanizes her, a substitute for her lost religious sense. In the sensual experience she finds the lost rapport, the sacred identification with reality. So the world, the future, her well-being, the meaning of things, all take shape again suddenly for her. It is with gratitude, like one who feels reborn, that she lets Jason possess her, she in turn possessing in him the regeneration of life." Maria recognized the parallels, and through Medea she could relive her own story: the love [she had for Aristotle Onassis] that made her tap into the woman in her and in some sense humanized her, the sensual experience of oneness, the new meaning, the new vitality like a rebirth. And in reliving her story through Medea's, she could exorcise some of her bitterness [over Onassis' betrayal]; she could see that it was not, after all, as it had seemed in the dark months that had passed, "nine years of meaningless sacrifice."

At the beginning of June 1969 this mystic Marxist [Pasolini] and Maria found themselves working together on Medea in a forgotten wild corner of Asia Minor. Goreme, in Turkey, with its rocks carved into weird shapes, was exactly the place Pasolini wanted - a place where it was at times hard to distinguish between myth and reality.

During her last month in Paris [Maria] could hardly get up before midday; in Goreme she was up at dawn. She arrived on the set to be dressed and made up before anyone expected her . . . She was full of humility about her new venture, constantly seeking advice, confirmation, reassurance. "Tell me, is this gesture too grand? Too operatic?"

From Goreme, they went to Aleppo in Syria, and then to Italy, to Pisa, to the lagoons and islands of Grado, to Tor Caldara and Tor Calbona near Rome. And wherever they went, out of rocks and deserts, blanched dunes and beaches, Pasolini re-created a strange, lost world of mystery and magic, a world where ritual, violence and the the supernatural were part of everyday life."

[Maria] was almost obsessively involved with Medea. In one scene, she was being taken in long shot, and had to run frantically barefoot on a dry riverbed. She was wearing a heavy gown with huge ropes of pagan jewels, the sun was beating down and she was running, running until she faited and collapsed on the mud. Pasolini and the entire crew ran toward her, and as she came back to consciousness her first words were, "Please forgive me! I'm so stupid. I shouldn't have done that. It's cost everyone so much time and money." Maria the professional, could not bear to be the one slowing things down.

For the final moments of the film, [Maria] refused the stand-in who was available: "Here," remembers Piero Tosi, "Maria reached the apex of her performance. Medea must build a great fire, and holding the bodies of her dead sons, perish in the flames while defying their faithless father. It was very dangerous, because she had to stand on a high wooden platform with flames soaring before her. It was a sacred ritual and Maria, blind as she was, had to hurl herself into the holocaust, or at least seem to do so for the camera's eye. Three times she acted out the scene, and during the last take she nearly fell right into the inferno. For Maria, it could have been done no other way."

"Didn't you find it exhausting to have to shoot the same scene many times?" Maria was asked at the end of July, when the shooting had moved to Italy. "No, it's futility that exhausts me, not work . . . There will be a great void when it's all over." There was a void, but something had happened during these two months of living with Medea and Pasolini that nobody could take away from her. She had reached a deeper understanding of what the last nine years [with Onassis] had meant and a quieter acceptance of the way they had ended. She had always called herself a fatalist, and often her fatalism implied resignation, a self-destructive giving up on life. But for the moment, the fatalism was of a different kind: an accepting trust that the patterns, large and small, of every aspect of her life, had some definite, however obscure, meaning. Her relationship with Pasolini, who, through both his poetry and his films, had always sought the meaning and connections beneath the surface, encouraged this trust."