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The Forgotten: Pyramid Schemes

A newly-crowned pharaoh struggles to unite his country and triumph over the power of the high priests in Jezy Kawalerowicz's _Faraon_.

I recently had the great pleasure of meeting a filmmaker who was a juror at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival. One of the movies in competition was Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Faraon (Pharaoh), an epic of court intrigues in ancient Egypt, and nearly fifty years later he could still describe the opening scene shot for shot.

As the shrill, discordant musique concrete score fades and the credits end, we are looking down upon a featureless expanse of rocky desert. We could be watching from space. A scritchy-scratchy sound is heard, and moments later we realize we're much closer to the Earth's surface, as two scarab beetles enter, wrestling over a ball of dung. The miniature battle immediately seems like a grand metaphor for human endeavor. With a thump, a big Polish-Egyptian head eclipses our view, and this brownface witness then jogs through the serried ranks of two thousand Russian soldiers dressed as Egyptian warriors, approaches young Rameses, heir to the throne, and tells him that since the sacred beetles are cavorting ahead, the whole army must take a detour.

It's an arresting opening, immediately introducing us to the sheer scale of the production, presented with a non-nonsense simplicity a far cry from DeMille's pompous gigantism, and to the fact that people in this era think differently from us (but as the film goes on clear parallels will emerge between church and state then and now).

My informant went on to say that the trouble with the film, for him, was that so many plotting characters in Egyptian disguise, topless and bewigged, became indistinguishable from one another, so that the only way you could keep track of who was shafting whom was by taking note of the actors' variously-shaped nipples.

Here, I think he was being slightly unfair, but it's a tough film to follow, since there are four nations involved, dozens of major characters, including one exact lookalike of the young heir apparent, and lots and lots of bald priests. The movie is three hours long, so if you commit to it you'll probably find a way through all this: try telling yourself that the stuff you can't follow probably doesn't matter, and after a while you may find that actually you're following it fine.

Kawalerowicz also made the atmospheric Mother Joan of the Angels, a rather more somber version of the story that inspired Ken Russell's The Devils, and in both films he showcases a striking visual style, with lots of flat-on architectural angles, ominous forward tracking shots, ambitious hand-held journeys (think of a less violent Zulawski: here he gives us an intensely claustrophobic lamp-light journey to the heart of a pyramid) and lots of snappy revelation moments where one character steps aside in close-up to reveal another in long-shot. And despite their eccentric dress (the costumes are as convincing as the body make-up is dubious) the cast manage to enter into a believable dialogue with ancient history. The oddness of them speaking Polish isn't a distraction for long, and is probably less distracting than English would be, as long as you don't speak Polish.

The film's anti-clerical stance and sympathy for the common people is probably an inevitable consequence of its being a communist nation's production, but the political arguments presented still seem quite reasonable: don't trust priests, politicians, and especially political priests.

***

The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Thanks for this nice little piece. I hope that to a certain extent awareness of the existence of this film will rise. I had once the dubious pleasure to watch it’s long, 3 hour version on VHS, since then I only managed to find the shortened one.
Kawalerowicz’s “Night Train” (1959) is one of the best films of the 1950s, worldwide. It’s worth noting that “Faraon” is based on a novel by one of the greatest Polish writers, Boleslaw Prus (1847-1912), best known for “The Doll,” his social novel of 19th Century Warsaw (which Wojciech Has made as a film in 1968). Both “The Doll” and “Faraon” (as “The Pharaoh and the Priest”) are available in English, the former in an NYRB Classics edition, the latter at Project Gutenberg.
Kawalerowicz is someone I need to see more of — both the films I’ve viewed were good, and interestingly consistent in style. Night Train must be seen! I had actually bought a second-hand VHS of this years ago, and tried watching it when the movie cropped up in conversation. Unfortunately that was a dubbed version, but I soon found a subtitled alternative.
Pociag was released on Bluray quite a while ago but I am not sure if it’s region free or something of that sort (rather not, I guess)…
Thanks for adding the note about the novel, Patrick Murtha. I’m starting to get into Has’ work and I’m also reading the original sources (Saragossa, Sanatorium) he adapted.
The Saragossa Manuscript is extraordinary — it has some of the sense of infinite imagination and scope you get from the 1001 Nights.
I highly recommend Ian MacLean’s translation under the title “The Manuscript Found in Saragossa,” available in Penguin. It’s one of the great reading experiences of a lifetime. The introduction lays out the fascinating and complex history of Jan Potocki’s text.
Thanks! I think I’ll do that…
Shadi Abdel Salam is set/costume designer but not credited on Mubi.

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