My final watch of the Chattanooga Film Festival was the secret screening of the unsettling and atmospheric Black Medusa, a film I knew absolutely nothing about before hitting play. In Greek mythology the Medusa was a Gorgon, a winged human female monster hybrid who had venomous snakes for hair. It was said that to gaze on Medusa’s beauty would turn any person to stone. The film is a reimagining of this myth, which also manages to function as a transgressive exploration of sexual trauma.Taking place over nine chapters in post-revolutionary Tunis, the film follows the beautiful Nada (Nour Hajri) who by day is a film editor and by night something more sinister.
Pulling a page from Abel Ferrara’s grindhouse classic, Ms .45, (That character’s name in that was Thana aka Thanatos, the Greek god of death) Nada is mute, and obviously suffered some sort of trauma to trigger her hunger for vengeance. She does this by meeting random men for dates, allowing them to gaze upon and take her home — channeling the film’s namesake, she then drugs them so they are paralyzed. While they are incapacitated Nada penetrates them to death with whatever she happens to find around her victim’s house. Her hunger grows chapter after chapter as well as her appetite for violence, to the point the men don’t have to be drugged, and the objects go from blunt to very sharp. Not too mention one victim a night is simply not enough.
The wrinkle in her plan is a new co-worker Noura (Rym Hayouni), who is hired as a graphic designer in her office and has taken a romantic interest in Nada. In keeping a more realistic tone and psychology of the character, the fact that Noura is a woman allows her to get as close as humanly possible to someone like Nada, who we witness graduate to full on serial killer during the film’s runtime. Medusa also invokes Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in that we don’t see what birthed Nada’s trauma, and the film doesn’t look to redeem or simply attempt to explain her away either. Rather the film is more comfortable with letting us view her evolution from a far.
Black Medusa is a thought provoking portrait of a serial killer that doesn’t sensationalize its subject, but instead offers up a more of a slice of life story that looks upon her with an empathetic eye. The film may be shot in lush black and white, but that’s the only absolutes here. I also applaud the filmmakers Youssef Chebbi and Ismaël for not attempting to give the character a redemption arc through a romance with her co-worker, which is where these things would normally go. Instead we as an audience use Noura as our throughline as she reaches out to the damaged woman to no avail and is regulated to a powerless bystander just like us. Fueled by pathos, Black Medusa never loses sight of the subject’s deteriorating humanity or how it impacts those around her.