Pharoah (Faraon) (13th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival/Masterpieces of Polish Cinema) Review

Egypt, the eleventh century BC. Prince Rameses (Jerzy Zelnik) gains the disapproval of the High Priest Herihor (Piotr Pawłowski) when he takes the Jewish Sarah (Krystyna Mikołajewska) as his mistress. When he becomes Pharoah on the death of his father, Rameses's efforts to solve Egypt's economic and military problems drives him into further conflict with Herihor...

Pharoah (Faraon), was based on a 1897 novel by Bolesław Prus which, other than in wartime, has never been out of print in Poland. It was a favourite novel of Stalin's. Jerzy Kawalerowicz, who wrote the screenplay with Tadeusz Konwicki, saw the film as an analysis of the systems and methods of political power and, the large scale of the production notwithstanding, the final film does emphasise that. Shot in colour and Scope, this was the most expensive Polish film to date, and demonstrates that a Soviet Bloc production, if it received official approval, could have considerable resources at its disposal. (See, for example, on an even larger scale, Sergei Bondarchuk's four-part, seven-hour film of War and Peace, the first two parts of which were released in the same year as Kawalerowicz's film.) While the interiors were shot in the studio at Łódź, an artificial island was built on Lake Kirsajty and a full-size Egyptian boat constructed, for scenes set on the Nile. Exteriors were filmed in Egypt itself and five months were spent in the desert in Uzbekistan, with Russian soldiers pressed into service as extras in a battle scene. Made decades before CGI, the film really has thousands of extras in many scenes. Compared to the historical epics coming out of Hollywood at the time, the colour palette is more restrained, emphasising the blues of the sky and the pale golds of the priests' uniforms rather than eye-popping primaries. Towards the end of the film, Kawalerowicz and DP Jerzy Wójcik fade the colour down all the way to black and white during a climactic scene depicting a total solar eclipse.

As with Knights of the Teutonic Order, made six years previously, Pharoah shows that the Poles can make big-scale foursquare historical epics as well as anyone, and have a large local audience for them. It has a more cerebral tone than other epics which emphasise the spectacle more, and a bland performance from Jerzy Zelnik prevents it from being fully engaging. On the other hand, Barbara Brylska (in some quite revealing costumes by mid-60s film standards) makes for a satisfyingly conniving High Priestess.

Pharoah played at Cannes, though the Palme d'Or that year went jointly to Claude Lelouch's A Man and a Woman, a film with some currency still to this day, and The Birds, the Bees and the Italians, directed by Pietro Germi, a film now vanished into obscurity. Pharoah was also Oscar-nominated as Best Foreign-Language film, but Lelouch's film won that too, also beating The Battle of Algiers and Loves of a Blonde. The British cinema release of Pharoah in 1969 was dubbed and shortened to 106 minutes. The DVD from Eureka in 2000 was closer to the full length (134 minutes, maybe with PAL speed-up) but was still dubbed. Some sources (such as the Monthly Film Bulletin's 1969 review) state that the full-length version of Pharoah ran 183 minutes, but the current 2K digital restoration is actually half an hour shorter than that (146:01 in the screener I viewed, with PAL speed-up, including restoration credits) so that running time may be an error that has persisted from one reference source to another. It is also subtitled, so this is very likely the first time the film has been shown in the UK at its full length and in its original language.

Pharoah is showing on 7 and 10 May at the BFI Southbank, London, as part of the Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema strand of the 13th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival. It is also showing at the Edinburgh Filmhouse on 10 and 23 May.

Overall

7

out of 10

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