English Title: Pharaoh
Original Title: Faraon
Director: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
based on the novel by Boleslaw Prus
Music: Adam Walacinski
Cinematography: Jerzy Wójcik
Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s long gestated film adaptation of Bolesław Prus’ historical novel PHARAOH is an ambitious endeavor, dazzles in its epic scale and formalist gravitas with an exclusive Polish cast, which leads to one prescribed proviso: for purists, it is beggar belief to watch a movie about ancient Egyptians where everyone sports Polish through and through; but other than that, the film is a marvel orchestrated with vigor, mettle and pathos.
The story centers around the story of an apocryphal pharaoh Ramses XIII (a 20-year-old Zelnik graced with haughty handsomeness and solemness), whose hellbent effort to seize power and pecuniary autonomy over an ever-increasingly theocratic clutches of the clergy in the Ancient Egypt.
The movie opens with a static close-up of two scarabs, competing for their trophy, then reveals a throng of Egyptian soldiers marching in an expansive desert, and directly points out the strife between the young Ramses XIII and the High Priest Herhor (Pawlowski), in order to show reverence to the sacred scarabs, Herhor commands the troops to take a devious route which causes damage to the newly-built water channels, and a resultant suicide of the channel digger. The incident enrages Ramses XIII, and he vows to take down the clergy when he assumes the regalia.
That day would not be too long in waiting, but what also awaits him is an Egypt sapping in wealth and sway, the priests arrange unfavorable treaties with the neighboring Assyrians in order to keep warfare at bay, which ostensibly seems like a well-intentioned strategy to save the hoi polloi from the scourge of war, but the truth is, there is large amount of gold and other fortunes being squirreled away in the labyrinth of the priests’ temple, nominally can be only appropriated when in exigency, which the High Priests would never grant in favor of feathering their own nests. This is the touch paper which Ramses XIII deploys to foment the masses against the clergy, in an attempt to take the latter down once for all. Sadly he is still wet in his ears, and the priests are not ready to back down without a fight.
As a historical saga, PHARAOH is unusually lean on action pieces and subdued in its chromatic approach, one could imagine if the story were to be transposed as a Hollywood tentpole in a post-BEN-HUR (1959) era, all the glittering and grandiose would suffuse its majestic set, and battleground bedlam pumped up by polished fighting competence. Here, in a much less ostentatious and more internalised style (costumes are astonishingly designed in its originally exotic verisimilitude), what comes about is a tragic tale of one young man’s over-confidence in his prowess against something far more sinister, deceptive and ruthless than he has ever imagined, with a sideswipe to the benighted mob, when an eclipse crops up, all hell broke loose and burrowing a hole in the ground is their knee-jerking reaction.
Performance-wise, the cast rounds out a mostly po-faced dourness even for those who are laughing in the end (with Pawlowski emanating the highest voltage), sometimes emotes a ghost of urgency but none-too ravishing to be brutally frank. Yet, it is Kawalerowicz’s arduous effort to minutely visualize a mythical epoch when primitivity and obtuseness overlay the world, yet through a tall-tale where a spate of human frailties abound and speak volumes of what one can assimilate into today’s circumstances, it galvanizes new audience with its ritualistic posture and beguiling aesthetic attributes.