The Ten Commandments (1923)

Legendary directory Cecil B. DeMille made two radically different films titled The Ten Commandments during his long Hollywood career. Featured here is The Ten Commandments from 1923, a spectacular silent drama that is actually two films for the price of one.

The beginning of the film consists of a lengthy prologue which tells the biblical story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt. With splendid sets and some very advanced special effects (still impressive today), it starts with God’s tenth plague on the Egyptians and ends as Moses comes down from Mount Sinai. This part is grandiose and majestic, and belongs among the great epics of silent film, but it is sometimes a bit overplayed, not least by Theodore Roberts in the role of Moses.

Julia Faye, Pat Moore, Charles de Rochefort as Rameses and Theodore Roberts as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

The rest of the film (in itself a normal feature-length film) is a modern-day drama about two brothers who fall in love with the same woman. One is an egoistic atheist who believes in nothing but money and power, while the other is a pious carpenter who lives with their mother and ever strives to do what is morally right. The overly simplistic and moralistic plot is sometimes hard to swallow, but the acting and production values are so good that this is just a minor annoyance.

It is difficult to avoid comparing this film with DeMille’s later The Ten Commandments (1956). Both are majestic. Neither is terribly historically accurate when it comes to the depiction of ancient Egypt. The biblical portion of the older film is only about one fourth the length of the later, which in turn has no modern section. But perhaps the bottom line is that either film is an excellent representative of its time and that both deserve to be seen, each on its own merits.

This film is best enjoyed for the biblical prologue in the beginning. During fifty minutes, the film is one glorious feast in massive sets, special effects and biblical quotes. The rest is a standard melodrama. Not bad (especially not the actors), but no better than lots of other good silent dramas.

Richard Dix, Rod La Rocque and Edythe Chapman in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

The Ten Commandments
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Year: 1923
Running time: 2 h 16 min
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Stars: Theodore Roberts, Richard Dix
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Excellent; organ music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.8 G)

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Que viva Mexico! (1979)

Que viva Mexico! is one of those films which is interesting even before you have started watching it, because it is a fascinating history.

Sergei Eisenstein's Que viva Mexico (1979)

The brilliant Soviet film maker Sergei Eisenstein went to Mexico in the early 1930s, to make a film there. He immediately started shooting, and the ideas for the script grew as he worked with the material.

But Eisenstein was never to complete his film. After having shot a good deal of film, he ran out of money and, unable to enter the United States, where he had planned to complete the film, eventually had to go back to the Soviet Union without being able to bring the film with him. The film material instead ended up in the US, where it was used to make several other films.

In the end, the complete, unedited material was sent to Soviet in a trade, but by then Eisenstein was long since dead. Instead, his assistant Grigori Alexandrov, who had been with him in Mexico, set out to make a film as true to Eisenstein’s vision as possible. This is the film that can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. It was not released until 1979, almost 50 years after the project had commenced.

The Internet Archive version is dubbed in Italian. Provided that you either understand Italian or have a good set of subtitles, that is not really a problem; only some brief parts in the beginning and end require lip synchronisation. I distinctly remember having seen this version some years ago with subtitles, so I assume that I found and downloaded them from some other Internet site. Try Google, and they should hopefully not be too hard to find.

This film is best enjoyed if you know a bit about the background, which is why I have focused on the film’s history above. However, it is in many ways a beautiful and powerful film, and gives us a brief glimpse of life in Mexico in the 1930s.

Sergein Eisenstein's Que viva Mexico (1979)

Que viva Mexico!
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Year: 1979
Running time: 1 h 24 min
Language: Italian (no subtitles)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein, Grigori Alexandrov
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (576×456)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (667 M)

Tsvet granata (1967)

One film can often have many different titles, and it is not always easy to know which one to use. For Tsvet granata (Цвет граната), for example, I have used the Russian title, since that is the one used on the Internet Archive copy to which I link. But in the west it is better known as The Color of Pomegranates (which I believe is just a translation of that Russian title), sometimes with different spelling variations. Occasionally, however, the Armenian title Nran Gujn (Նռան գույնը) is used, and sometimes the name of the film’s protagonist is the title, Sayat Nova.

The Color of Pomegranates / Nran Gujn / Sayat Nova / Цвет граната / Tsvet granata (1967)

Whatever we choose to call it, the film itself is pure visual poetry. On the surface, it is a biography about the Armenian 18th century poet and musician Sayat Nova. Before watching the film, I had never heard about him, but he is apparently a very important character in the cultural history and literature of his own country.

Interestingly, however, though the film is based on events in Sayat Nova’s life, and though it follows an apparently chronological structure, from childhood to death, it is not in any way a traditional biographical film; or, for that matter, a traditional film of any kind. Each scene is like a piece of art in itself. It is mostly shot with a stationary camera at long to medium distance, and in every scene actors perform various acts. Not like actors act in a traditional sense, trying to give the impression of mirroring reality, but instead they interact with the scenery and sounds around them as if posing for a portrait, or executing slow and elaborate dance moves.

The scenes often appear static, but this is part of director Sergei Parajanov’s extremely powerful visual language. A language of contrast, colour (not least the red of the title’s pomegranate), sound and metaphor. As I watch, I feel that there is a massive amount of culturally significant metaphor swooshing incomprehensibly past my mind, because I lack the cultural background knowledge. Yet, I do not perceive this as a problem. The dephts to which I cannot reach become a strength, a tantalising promise that there is more to discover.

Unfortunately, the version I link to is a Soviet cut that was censored by several minutes due to religious content. A complete version with the original Armenian title cards (rather than Russian) exists at the Internet Archive, but it is of inferior image quality.

This film is best enjoyed if you can focus fully on the experience, but on the other hand it is not necessary to view it all in one sitting. Since there is no plot, each scene can be enjoyed as an isolated piece of art. This is not to say that you should not watch the entire movie. In spite of the lack of story, this is definitely a whole movie, with many themes and threads running through the length of the picture.

The Color of Pomegranates / Nran Gujn / Sayat Nova / Цвет граната / Tsvet granata (1967)

Tsvet granata (The Color of Pomegranates)
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Year: 1967
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 12 min
Director: Sergei Parajanov
Stars: Sofiko Chiaureli
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (684 M)

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)

Motion pictures today is very much a man’s world. Sure, there are many strong women in popular movies, but they are always sexy and usually there is also a strong man somewhere in the background to help out when needed.

This has not always been so, however. It may perhaps surprise some to learn that in the days of silent cinema, strong and independent female characters where not at all uncommon.

Renée Jeanne Falconetti (Maria Falconetti) in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc aka The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

With La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc), director Carl Theodor Dreyer created a film which is so powerful, so naked and so immediate that it still, over 85 years later, will take your breath away.

The film was made in France, with actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti (usually credited as “Maria Falconetti”) in the title role, but the director is Danish, and it was also first screened in Denmark.

The director’s own copies of the film were destroyed by fire (a fate shared with many a silent film) and for many years only inferior copies, not approved by the director, were available. But in the 1980s, a single remaining original copy surfaced in Oslo, Norway.

In my opinion, there is only one problem with this film. Dreyer based the film very closely on historical transcripts of Joan of Arc’s trial, but gives us next to no background. In the beginning, only the title tells us who the central character is, and we are not informed of the place, the time, or any other characters. In a way, this beginning strengthens the force of the narrative, but since Dreyer binds himself to telling the story in strict linear fashion with no apparent deviations from actual historical events, the viewer is left even at the end with next to no knowledge of why anything in the movie happened in the first place. The viewing experience is totally dependent on whether you know the background or not.

In spite of this, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is a must see for every cineast. It is one of the most important films in the history of silent cinema, and it is a powerful experience.

This film is best enjoyed as a celebration of International Women’s Day, the 8th of March every year.

Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc aka The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc
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Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Language: French (no subtitles)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Stars: Renée Jeanne “Maria” Falconetti
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (384×288)
Soundtrack: None
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (700 M)