The story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt inspired Cecile B. DeMille to create one of his epics, The Ten Commandments, but the holiday of Pessah has struck few chords with other filmmakers. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) remains a watchable and well-made film, although, especially for Jewish audiences, it has moments of unintentional humor. I actually saw it on the big screen years ago, at Mann's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, rather than in one of the annual television showings that have become a staple of US network holiday programming. It's a fitting tribute to the life and work of Charlton Heston, who died earlier this month, to say that his performance as Moses, however much it has been parodied since, was impressive. He certainly took his work seriously, with no winking at the audience. And, although this fact may seem so obvious it doesn't bear repeating, he was an incredibly handsome man with amazing screen presence, which is why he was cast so often as larger-than-life heroes. DeMille reportedly chose him for Moses because Heston reminded him of Moses in Michelangelo's statue.
It isn't really Heston who was responsible for the silly giggles that viewing this film will provoke, but more the intersection of star-studded Hollywood filmmaking with a biblical story. The plagues go by pretty darn fast, as does the 40 years in the desert. Some of the dialogue is just plain inane, such as the moment when Anne Baxter, as Pharaoh's wife, finds the baby Moses and says, "I will call him Moses, because I have pulled him from the water" - uh, OK. Edward G. Robinson plays an evil overseer, but somehow it's hard to take him seriously when he wears a toga and doesn't have a cigar.
Other than Heston, the acting standout is Yul Brynner, grim but charismatic as Rameses. I remember laughing at the over-the-top moments at the screening in Los Angeles, and then looking around and noticing that my Israeli friends and I were the only ones chuckling in an audience filled with what looked like earnest young Christians. The movie may not have been subtle or wholly faithful to the biblical story, but they took it seriously. It represented something important to them, as it obviously did to Heston, an actor who gave some wonderful performances during his long career, particularly in Planet of the Apes (don't laugh, he's very, very good there and if you don't believe me, trying watching the four sequels without him) and Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.
A recent movie that touches on a Passover story that is closer to home is When Do We Eat? This movie, which is set in America but stars Israeli actress Mili Avital (Noodle) tells the story of a seder that gets out of hand. Variety wrote: "Another entry in indiedom's contest to create the most dysfunctional family, Salvator Litvak's When Do We Eat? unites 11 outrageously mismatched Jewish relatives for a feature-length Passover seder. What begins with sitcom-style infighting turns to touchy-feely reconciliation when the family stoner drops a tab of ecstasy in patriarch Ira's drink." This movie won't be everyone's cup of wine, but in addition to Avital, it stars Michael Lerner as the patriarch, Lesley Ann Warren, Shiri Appleby, Jack Klugman and Ben Feldman and is available on DVD.
Israeli/Canadian filmmaker/archeologist/showman Simcha Jacobovici set out to prove that the Exodus actually took place in the documentary, The Exodus Decoded (2006). Director James Cameron (Titanic) narrates this attempt to scientifically prove the event was a reality. It's a movie that, at a screening at the 2006 Jerusalem Film Festival, seemed to resonate most with the modern Orthodox in the audience. Most secular people don't really care if the events took place or not and the ultra-Orthodox tend to just believe in it and don't need proof. But it was the knitted kippah wearers who kept Jacobovici talking long after the movie had ended.
Israeli cinema continues to flourish all around the world; next stop, Wyoming, at the 5th annual Jackson Hole Film Festival in Jackson, WY, in early June. Avi Nesher's drama about ultra-Orthodox young women, The Secrets, and Limor Pinhasov's documentary, A Working Mom, will both compete. It won't be long before the Cannes line-up will be announced, and we'll see what Israeli movies will be showcased there next.