Part the Red Sea and pass the matzah: Passover on screen

A guide to some depictions of Passover on the big and small screen

The Prince of Egypt (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Prince of Egypt
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Although there are countless movies that focus on Jewish life, for some reason the holidays have not taken center stage in most of them. But the Biblical Exodus story has captured Hollywood’s imagination several times, even if movies about modern-day Jews celebrating the holiday (and cleaning for it) have been few and far between. Here is a guide to some depictions of Passover on the big and small screen. 

The Ten Commandments — While this 1956 Cecil B. DeMille epic starring Charlton Heston as Moses is remembered as a classic, it’s actually quite dated and kitschy, although fun to watch. Its single Oscar win came, not surprisingly, in the Special Effects category, and the scene where the Red Sea parts was cutting edge for its time. Yul Brynner glowers malevolently as Ramesses, and the supporting cast includes John Derek (husband of Bo) as Joshua, Anne Baxter as Nefertiri, Yvonne De Carlo and Edward G. Robinson as a lecherous slave oversee. Bithiah (Nina Foch) finds baby Moses in his basket and says, “Because I drew you from the water, you shall be called Moses,” and there are many moments like that where the film tries to stay close to the Hebrew Bible but makes no sense for an American audience. Don’t expect kids to sit still for this.
Exodus: Gods and Kings — Ridley Scott’s 2014 Exodus: Gods and Kings features more contemporary special effects but still has a clunky air of English-speaking inauthenticity. It came out a couple of years after Game of Thrones became popular and it’s got a bit of a GOT vibe as the Egyptian rulers scheme and Moses (Christian Bale) fights to free the Jews. Joel Edgerton is a bit wooden as Ramesses, and the supporting cast includes John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley.
The Prince of Egypt — The 1998 animated children’s classic features catchy songs and a cast that includes Val Kilmer, Jeff Goldblum, Steve Martin, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Ralph Fiennes and, in the role of Yocheved, the late Israeli singing star, Ofra Haza.
Uncut Gems
— The recent Adam Sandler movie from Netflix by Benny and Josh Safdie tells the story of a 47th St. Manhattan diamond dealer whose life collapses during the week of Pesach and features a key scene at the seder, where liberation from debt through gambling is all that is on the main character’s mind. 
The Exodus Decoded — James Cameron narrated and produced this 2006 documentary by Canadian-Israeli director / archeologist Simcha Jacobovici about an investigation to prove that the Exodus story took place using modern scientific methods. Jacobovici starred in the television series, “The Naked Archeologist,” and brings a showman’s swagger to this subject. It’s available on YouTube.
When Do We Eat? — An English-language 2005 farce from Salvador Litvak about a family seder and the mayhem that ensues after the patriarch (Michael Lerner) unknowingly ingests some Ecstasy before the meal begins. Before it kicks in, he boasts, “Fastest seder on earth.” When an observant guest asks, “Why have a seder if all you’re going to do is rush through it?” the father replies, “Because that’s what Jews do.” Israeli-American actress Mili Avital, Jack Klugman, Lesley Ann Warren and Ben Feldman also star. 
Passover Fever (Leylasede) — This 1995 Israeli movie directed by Shemi Zarhin (Aviva, My Love) is a comedy-drama with music about family conflicts that arise as several generations gather to celebrate the holiday. It stars some of the leading lights of Israeli movies and theater, including Gila Almagor, Joseph Shiloach, Alon Aboutboul, Anat Waxman, Aryeh Moskona, Dror Keren, Shoshana Duer and Miki Kam.
There are a number of episodes of kids’ shows you can find on YouTube about the holiday, including “It’s Passover, Grover!” You can find many clips on YouTube from the “Rugrats” Passover episode from 1996, which is quite charming and you get to watch Tommy Pickles part the Red Sea. 
“GLOW” — In the the sixth episode of the third season of the Netflix series about a motley crew of actresses who become wrestlers on a TV show, the group leaves Las Vegas, where they are performing, and goes on a hike on the eve of Pesach. There Melrose (Jackie Tohn) tells her version of the Exodus story and this encourages Jenny (Ellen Wong), who is Cambodian, to open up about her family’s past hardships.
Wonder Boys — While this 2000 movie adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel about a troubled professor (Michael Douglas) taking a road trip with an equally unhinged student (Tobey Maguire) isn’t strictly a Passover story, there is a plotline where the professor plans to attend a seder with his estranged wife’s family in an attempt to win her back. He tells the student they are going to attend a Passover celebration and some great seder-related dialogue follows: “That’s the one where you don’t get to eat any bread,” says the student. “That’s the one,” replies the professor. “What about doughnuts?” “They’re out, too, I’d imagine.” “Doesn’t sound like much of a holiday.”