MYSTERIES OF EGYPTNR
The large-format industry has been mulling over incorporating narrative into its films for some time. A successful, story-driven feature still has not arrived. Mysteries of Egypt, directed by Bruce Neibaur, does not attempt to be that total innovation, but rather an intermediary step between the form's traditional documentary genre and character-based drama. Though a little creaky in parts, the film wins us over with its impressive production values, fair-minded presentation and formal ambition. Instead of attempting to build one story, it actually uses two, and interweaves them. It also employs color, full-frame images for some scenes, and matted, black-and-white ones for others. Though most audiences will probably come away remembering an entertaining excursion into ancient Egypt, and witnessing a recreation of Howard Carter's excitement at discovering the tomb of King Tutankhamen, Mysteries of Egypt also offers one of the more sophisticated structures that the large-format field has produced.
The filmmakers rely on an outer and an inner story. In the outer story, set in the present at a cozy restaurant in an Egyptian city, an elderly gentleman (Omar Sharif) explains the history of the land's ancient times and marvels to an initially incredulous young girl (Kate Maberly). He describes pyramid building, water transport and, finally, Carter's historic uncovering in 1922 of Tutankhamen's burial chamber, after years of personal persistence. Though the outer story clearly means to convey a natural ease in communication between these two, the exchanges between the old man and the young girl never quite impart a real pleasure in teaching from him, or a spark of curiosity in her. Too didactically, she asks questions, and he spouts answers-which she either readily accepts, or queries in a manner that simply sets the stage for the old man's next lesson for her. Their function in the film is to make a preamble for various reenactments and footage of historic sites that follow, but the dialogue nevertheless could have been made more convincingly like normal, idle chat between two people.
The inner story depicts the quest of Carter (Timothy Davies) to discover the burial site of Tutankhamen. We see his party trek through the Egyptian desert, finally arriving at a remote, inhospitable valley. One of his crew uncovers fragments that could belong to a tomb entrance. Digging further, Carter and his men reach an underground enclosure. Breaking through a wall inside, Carter spies the chamber that houses the ornate possesions with which the king was laid to rest. The archaeologist later called that moment the greatest of his life, and the movie's interpretation of it is spellbinding, lending subjective shots that let us participate in Carter's ecstasy and triumph.
The scenes of Carter have a stronger resemblance to a drama than the outer story, and as they ostensibly spring from the present-day imagination of the old man, they are in black-and-white. Intriguingly, they are matted in a Cinemascope-like proportion, which helps us to concentrate on the images not as self-sufficient pieces, but as 'links' we expect to move forward to make a story. Since we have to sweep over the picture with our eyes in one direction or another to begin to make sense of it, the rectangular form of the picture prompts us to inquire if there might be other progressions in the film to understand, such as a narrative one. Making a survey, which a wide image demands, gets us on the track of putting steps together to complete comprehension.
Mysteries of Egypt could have built up the characters of the outer story; it also could have allowed Carter to actually talk, instead of putting the old man's voice-over in place of speaking parts for him. Possibly, the filmmakers chose not to have Carter speak because his discovery occurred during the silent-film era. None of these shortcomings seriously detract from a gorgeous and well-documented film; they do, however, show large-format creeping toward obtaining the power to narrate. Though the storytelling elements of Mysteries of Egypt sputter, experimenting with them at all is a valuable gain for Neibaur and the whole industry. Hopefully, future films will build from this one.