Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Martin Scorsese Presents: Pharaoh

As the country that gave the world Quo Vadis, Poland has always appreciated a good epic. After all, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s short stories ran about five hundred pages. In the spirit of grand historicals, Jerzy Kawalerowic unleashed his inner Cecil B. DeMille in Phaoraoh, which screens with newly translated subtitles and a restored print as a handpicked selection of Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Ramses XII will soon be Pharaoh, but his father’s long, slow decline has allowed the priests to consolidate their hold on behind-the-scenes power. For decades, their coffers have swelled, while the Pharaoh’s have shrunk. Acutely aware of the situation, Ramses the younger makes no secret of his disdain for the clerical class and the superstitions they use to control the populace. He is also spoiling for a war with the Assyrians—a fact that suits the Phoenicians just fine. However, Ramses’ reckless nature will be his conspicuous vulnerability. Taking the Jewish Sara as his favorite mistress also raises eyebrows.

Throughout Pharaoh one can easily pick up on Kawalerowic’s affinity for shots of characters marching with a purpose, often culminating in an extreme close-up in the foreground, with a striking vista of sand dunes in the background. This is definitely big picture, cast-of-thousands filmmaking, shot in Łódź soundstages and on location in Uzbekistan and Egypt (for a handful of pick-ups). For obvious reasons, Pharaoh features a color palette heavy on the yellows and golds, as well as costumes decidedly on the skimpy side, especially for the standards of 1966. It is hardly Caligula, but there is at least one scene of old school revelry.

On one level, Pharaoh is a big juicy historical melodrama, with all kinds of intrigue and betrayal. Yet, the dynamic below the surface is also quite fascinating, particularly when considered as another celebrated collaboration between Kawalerowic and Tadeusz Konwicki, who would subsequently move in very different directions politically.  Konwicki would become a Solidarity supporter and pen the highly personal protest novel, A Minor Apocalypse. In contrast, Kawalerowic would basically sign-off on whatever was demanded of him (which greatly complicated his later career).  We can readily discern an “absolute power corrupts absolutely” theme reflective of Konwicki’s principles, whereas the depiction of priestly authority actively exploiting the masses would have surely satisfied Kawalerowic’s minders.

As the impulsive Ramses, Jerzy Zelnik came to play, unleashing all kinds of passion and fury, while staying grounded in the tradition of classical tragedy. There is indeed of touch of Hamlet in his Ramses. One could argue they both had father issues. And mother issues. And issues with women. Speaking of which, Barbara Brylska truly scorches the screen as Kama, the Phoenician priestess charged with seducing Ramses.

The Polish cast playing ancient Egyptian characters might sound a little odd, but it really is no different from the sword-and-sandal films Hollywood cranked out in the 1960’s. Elizabeth Taylor was not anymore Egyptian than Brylska. Lusty and sprawling, Pharaoh is an enormously entertaining cinematic indulgence, with unexpected bite in the third act. Highly recommended, it screens this Friday (2/7) and Sunday (2/9) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema.