The Medium (1951)

Article #991 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12/1/2003
Posting Date: 4/29/2004
Directed by Gian Carlo Menotti
Featuring Marie Powers, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Leopoldo Savona

When a fake medium is unexpectedly touched by a spirit during a seance, her life and sanity begin to unravel.

In my voyage through the waters of Fantastic Cinema, I have touched on many more genres than just fantasy, science fiction and horror; since I also cover movies that have fantastic elements even if they don’t strictly belong to the above genres, I have also covered mysteries, film noirs, comedies, dramas, soap operas, espionage thrillers, action/adventure, musicals, and biographies, among others. In fact, are there any genres that I haven’t yet touched upon in my travels?

Well, how about opera? For that is precisely the type of movie THE MEDIUM is.

Now, I’ll start out by saying that I’m not an opera buff; though I like many types of classical music, opera has remained elusive and unsatisfying to me. Watching this movie helped me to pinpoint why; in most vocal music, the lyrics are prepared to bow to the demands of the music. With opera, the opposite appears to be the case; the music seems designed to play a secondary role to the words. As a result, I find most opera music to be singularly devoid of any real melodic value; I can’t hum them, I can’t whistle them, and they don’t stick in the memory.

I’m also not keen on operatic vocal techniques. To illustrate, let me describe my initial moments of watching this movie. The first five minutes were just fine; the music was largely a voiceless prelude, and the movie concentrated on visuals. When the singing began about five minutes into the movie, I moaned in frustration, as I thought it was in Italian, and not subtitled to boot. Then, five minutes later, I made a new discovery; the movie wasn’t in Italian, as I thought, but in English. It was at that point that I realized that it didn’t matter to me what language it was in; I would have preferred subtitles, so I could understand the English. The problem is that operatic phrasing is such a distinct and precise thing that listening to it is like hearing English being spoken in some unknown and alien dialect. Furthermore, even if I could understand the occasional line, all it took was for the diva to hold a note for several seconds in the middle of one of her sentences for me to start to lose the thread of what she was saying. Now I’m willing to believe that continued exposure to opera would eventually enable me to understand the vocalization better, but that would requre me to watch a lot more of it, and I’m not sure I want to make the investment of time.

So, bearing in mind that this movie already had several strikes against it (in my mind), I’m quite pleased to say that nonetheless, I enjoyed the movie well enough. There are several reasons; first of all, it was only eighty minutes long (most operas run three and a half hours, and though that statement is probably not strictly true, that’s what it feels like to me). Second of all, it was shot like a movie rather than like a photographed stage play, relying on visuals and close-ups to clue us in on the emotions of the characters; this created a much greater degree of intimacy than I expected. Thirdly, the acting is very good indeed, especially Marie Powers as the medium who finds her life falling apart because of her inability to cope with her experience. And lastly, I actually liked the story; it was real drama with strong fantastic elements rather than the melodrama that seems so prevalent among opera plots. As a consequence, I liked the movie.

Odd how these things work out, isn’t it?

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