Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
The Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center in New York City's retrospective - History
Lessons: The Films of Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 30 January to 12 February 2004, screened the
major work of this Polish director whose career spanned 50+ years. The programme offered,
amidst the veteran's varied output, a very special, culture vulture/archaeologist's dream:
Pharaoh (aka: Faraon), co-scripted by Kawalerowicz with Tadeusz Konwicki,
and based on a novel by Boleslaw Prus. The best cinematic recreation of circa 1100 BC
Late New Kingdom Dynastic Egypt ever, photographed on location at authentic sites and
environs, the production design, costumes and props were all meticulously researched.
The story, based on actual historic events, concerns an invented ruler Ramses XIII (Jerzy Zelnick) - actually there were 11 Ramses in the archaeological record - plunked into the drama experienced by Ramses XI. While still Crown Prince, handsome, athletically built Ramses yearns to stem the gradual decline of Egypt's empire and to reform the miserable lives of the huge peasant and labouring classes. Young Ramses' plans, abiding until his rapidly ailing, aged father Ramses XII's (Andrej Girtler) death, greatly displease the powerful, numerous sacerdotal caste, particularly its most influential elder, an actual personage - the Sun God Amon-Ra's high priest Herihor (Pietr Pawlowski), the real, long-term power behind the throne.
The fascinating tale of two vivid, shrewd, utterly opposed personalities vying for power and the intrigues surrounding such efforts, calls for bravura performances and the lead actors and the supporting players deliver. Enhancing all we get dazzling: authentic exteriors and interiors; costumes, props and ornaments - everything expertly photographed by Jerzy Wojcek and complemented by Adam Walacinski's minimal score recreating the instrumentation of the ancient period. The set decoration and many objects: gorgeous jewellery; furniture; vessels; clothing; weaponry; chariots, etc, directly copy museum pieces or artworks which this armchair archaeologist reviewer gleefully recognised.
The oddest anachronism in this picture was seeing an African civilisation with the prominent personages impersonated by Poles speaking their language. Dark body makeup aside, Polish money financed the organisation of this production and the Poles can be forgiven for putting their own people in the principal roles with locals as extras. Despite such quibbles, Pharaoh's admirable, almost entirely successful attempt at an authentic depiction of Egypt during the last Ramses' reign and the social/ political/ spiritual issues of the time, still relevant today, deserves enthusiastic praise. Ideally, all the actors should have been Egyptians, but the Polish thespians acquitted themselves with aplomb and we can hope they inspire indigenous initiated historical cinematic dramas in the future.
This film, the epitome of the next best thing to having a time machine, offering splendid visuals and intelligent presentation of a riveting story - surpasses any other opus dealing with dynastic Egypt. Pharaoh is the one period epic that rules them all!