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.