Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Jerzy Kawalerowicz | Faraon (Pharaoh)
poses and gestures
By Douglas Messerli
Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Tadeusz Konwicki (screenplay, based on a novel by Bołeslow Prus), Jerzy Kawalerowicz (director) Faraon (Pharoah) / 1966, USA 1977
The plot of Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s magnificent 1966 film, Pharoah, although extremely important to effect of this film, is actually quite simple, and is almost able to summarized in two or three sentences. The young heir to the Egyptian throne, Ramses XIII (Jerzy Zelnik), is impatient to make an impact of Egyptian culture. In some ways, the young Ramses is conservative, longing for the power of the throne held by his great-grandfather as opposed to the greatly declined Egypt over which his father, and soon he will rule. The young Ramses would like a world, like that represented by Cheop’s magnificent tomb, in which great memorials as the pyramids did not just represent the pharoahs’ power, but their will. If the poor and suffering everymen and women of Egypt had to die in the process, it was because the Pharoah was the figure of power, not the people.
On the other hand, Ramses XIII is also a radical visionary, who, despite the positive effects in that past power brought about by the priests, now sees the priests as the cause of his country’s decline. Throughout Kawaleowicz’s study—and this film, based on a similarly analytical novel by the great Polish writer Bolesław Prus—Ramses opposes the priestly caste, ultimately openly battling with them. And, in that sense, the young warrior represents a new force upon the Egyptian landscape that has the potential to save the country and its population, as well as, which the insightful priest Pentuer (Leszek Herdegen) perceives as possible, helping with the conditions of the poorest of its people.
Ramses, however, is doomed because of this almost single-minded obsession. Unlike his wiser—but also politically ineffective—father, who practices a kind of realpolitik in which he grants some powers in his name to the priests, the young Ramses acts blindly, without the ability to analyze the intentions of his kingdom’s major enemies—the Phoenicians and the Assyrians—let alone the capability of perceiving the truly evil machinations of the wealthy priestly caste, perhaps the most dangerous of all in their determination to keep the benefits their have acquired.
Finally, the handsome young heir, who quickly becomes the Pharoah as his father falls ill and, soon after, dies, has no comprehension of how he will effected by the women he chooses. If his first love, Sara (Krystyna Mikolajewska), seems to be a loyal supporter, her being Jewish infuriates Ramses’ mother, Queen Nikotris (Wiesława Mazurkiewicz) and, given the Egyptian class system, predetermines that his son (Seti/Isaac) will be born a slave, able only to rule over Israel.
Ramses’ second choice is the Phoenician princess Kama (Barbara Brylska) who has been schooled in betrayal, and, with the help of a Greek criminal, Lykon (also played by Jerzy Zelnik), who acts as a kind of doppelgänger to the young Pharoah, later kills Sara, Ramses’ son, and, finally, Ramses’ himself.
In his final love affair, with Hebron (Ewa Krzyżewska), Ramses betrays his best friend and cousin, his most loyal supporter, Thutmose (Emir Buczacki). In short, Ramses is not only unlucky in love, but, as he proves himself to be on the battlefield, is absolutely destructive, revealing himself to be a hot-headed man of action as opposed to the beloved sage who could lead Egypt out of its indebted bondage.
What this film finally reveals is that, despite all the apparent enemies Ramses XIII must face, in the end he destroyed, at least symbolically, by himself—by his own inexperience and immaturity.
It is this very artificiality and theatricality, reminding one somewhat of the emblematic scenarios of Sergei Paradjanov, that transforms what might have been a sword and sandal spectacular into a stately cinematic masterwork. Just as his hero seeks to rid his citizens of their slavish adoration of the magic and hokum (including, in this case, a priestly calculated eclipse), so Kawalerowicz dares his audience to conceive a world through the lens—probably all it could offer itself within its own time as well—of poses and gestures. This is a “picture,” the director keeps reminding us, of a long lost world, a simulation of a small place on our planet in the 11th century BCE, which had little in common with us except for the human dilemmas with which it was faced.
*The original press kit of this film recounts that the production costs of Pharaoh outstripped those of any other film ever made in Poland. Shootings in the desert of Uzbekistan’s Kisil-Kim exacted nearly unable conditions of deaily heat, with vipers and venomous insects springing out at its actors and extras from yards away. The production “team had to journey the 20 miles which separated the location from the headquarters in Bokhara. For a period six months the director oversaw 2,000 Soviet soldiers and hundreds of other extras. “On the average, 10,000 bottles of soft drinks were needed each day. The properties and equipment were brought from Bokhara in 27 trucks. The wood for the Pharaoh’s palace and the Ptah temple was procured from the Siberian forests, transported from a distance of over 1,200 miles. The film itself had to be kept in cold storage to protect it from temperatures that often reached 176° Fahrenheit.
Los Angeles, June 18, 2014