Pharaoh/Faraon works both as a convincing historical drama and an allegory of Poland's own troublesome history with the Catholic Church, at once the cause of its solidarity and its destruction as an independent state. Although there are armies and a big battle, the real conflict is between a Pharaoh with no real power and the corrupt priests who are dragging the empire down. It's an intelligent and involving movie, beautifully thought out and executed, although sadly it exists in many cut versions (the dubbed UK video - unlike the DVD, presented in the correct ratio - is missing at least one scene but some theatrical prints are missing as much as an hour: if there's a better disc out there, I'd love to find it).
It's a fascinating and engrossing mixture of great film-making, political and historical allegory and strong dramatic narrative, driven by a flawed hero who wouldn't get near the lead of a modern-day epic. There appears to be at least one brief scene missing from the dubbed UK video - Pharaoh's mother, her head shorn, wailing like a banshee on the sand dunes after the death of her husband (presumably leading into the now awkward cut of wailing mourners as his body is prepared by the priests) - but at 135/140 minutes it's considerably nearer its original length than the 105 minute version that was given a belated release in the UK in 1969. There's a real sense of a director's vision, both intellectual and visual, at work here, as well as a world both lived-in and past its prime. The film is filled with stunning images: the priest, arms outstretched, head raised to the sun while below him thousands of peasants cower at an eclipse; a long single take of a messenger running through the midst of a huge army, later mirrored by a point of view shot of a soldier running to his death at the hands of an opposing army. But more than that, the use of the imagery has been thought through surprisingly clearly. Take the opening sequence, for example.
An army on manoeuvres is diverted to avoid treading on two beetles, driving a slave to suicide after the army fill in the canal he is digging to earn his family's freedom. Only after seeing the slave's dead body does Pharaoh-to-be act to repair the damage, establishing what will doubtless become a pattern of acting decisively too late and too ineffectively. The script is intelligent and the film-making very impressive, while the Pharaoh's conflict with the priests seems to be an intriguing reflection on the influence of the Catholic Church on Polish politics - like Ismail Kadare's Albanian novel The Dust of Kings/The Pyramid (using the building of the great pyramid as a means of attack on the Stalinist 5-year plans under Enver Hoxha), this appears to use history as a means of 'transparent allegory' without obviously sacrificing the historical integrity or audience involvement to make its points.
Although the film does threaten at one point to head down the Joan Collins Land of the Pharaohs route with the introduction of a devious temple priestess, it remains anchored in the failings and limitations of its central character. Ramses is as much a victim of his own vision, blinkered by his ambition to recapture the glories of the past, as he is of his opponents in the priesthood. His desire for greatness comes not from the needs of his people, but from his own ego.
Indeed, although we are immediately introduced to the army in a scene that prefigures the way Ramses' military ambitions will be thwarted by the demands of the priesthood, we don't see the people until near the end. The film is preoccupied until then by his immediate circle, his friends and lovers and the priests - because he does not have any perception of his duty towards them (or, more aptly, their political usefulness to him) until too late. When told that it caused the deaths of 100,000 for no purpose but vanity, Ramses responds that the pyramid, perhaps the most potent symbol of Egypt, is important only as a physical monument to the expression of the Pharaoh's will: Cheops willed it and it was done. Rameses' will, by contrast, is doomed to dust, the people manipulated more skilfully by the priests than his own ministrations.
East European art has always looked towards the historical epic for political allegories of 'a transparent kind,' and as with The Dust of Kings, it's a meditation on the nature of state and political power. Poland's precarious state of nationhood with its decades of shifting boundaries is reflected in Egypt's growing loss of influence over her neighbours and satellite states. It has particular reference to the role of the Catholic Church in Poland's own troubled history. Even the nation's anti-Semitism is acknowledged in the attempts of characters to scapegoat the Jews for the nation's weaknesses.
It was, after all, the refusal of the Catholic resistance to join forces with the Jewish resistance that led to the communists taking over - most stood by and watched as the Jews were massacred in the Warsaw Ghetto, and then the Russians stood by and watched as the Catholics were so weakened by the Germans that they could not properly resist becoming a satellite state.
Yet if the Egyptian priests can be seen as mirrors of the Catholic clergy on Polish politics, even that is not simplistic: the film acknowledges both the priesthood's disastrous effect on recent politics while acknowledging its part in making the country great.
Sadly, unlike the video release, the letterboxing on Eureka's UK PAL DVD has been botched, stretching the image almost to 3:35:1 rather than the intended 2.35:1.