It just so happens that two of the best wide-screen movies I’ve seen in the past year are playing in Chicago this week: James Gray’s The Immigrant, which the Weinstein Company has deigned to release theatrically after threatening to send it straight to video-on-demand, and Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Pharaoh (1966), one of the major discoveries of the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema series currently underway at the Gene Siskel Film Center. One thing I admire about both films is the way they evoke earlier works shot in the Academic ratio while translating some of their visual ideas to the wider format.
Pharaoh recalls Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in its depictions of faces and crowds as a kind of living architecture, images that contribute greatly to the movie’s spectacle of power. At the same time, Kawalerowicz clearly designed the film for wide-screen—no less powerful than the monumental images of people are the shots of the barren desert landscape, which throw the former into sharp relief. In a recent blog post, Marilyn Ferdinand notes the majesty of the opening shot, a towering closeup of two dung beetles fighting over a turd in the sand. “This [shot] perfectly communicates . . . the clash between governmental and religious leaders . . . as well as the puniness of their struggle in the face of the vast, uncaring forces of nature and history.”
The Immigrant is up-front about its debt to silent melodrama, concluding with a moment of spiritual revelation that few living directors would depict as expressively as Gray does here. In the extended final shot, Gray shows two of the film’s major characters departing the same room—one walks away from the camera, the other’s path appears to us in a mirror. Both characters have experienced radical transformations; and while these epiphanies are similar in nature, they draw the two in literally opposite directions. This shot reminds me of the groundbreaking crosscutting of D.W. Griffith’s silent films, both in the trajectories it charts and in its raw emotional power. Yet Gray achieves something different by collapsing the two paths into one wide-screen shot. He preserves their simultaneity, rendering the moment increasingly, heartbreakingly fragile as it transpires.