’Tis the season, my friends, ’tis the season. ’Tis the season for macaroons, matzo balls and mishpacha (family). As Passover approaches, I thought it would only be appropriate to highlight some of my personal favorite holiday movies. Sure, we don’t have delightful movies like Christmas does. There is no Passover version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Story,” but there is potential. “A Passover Story,” where all Ralphie wants for Passover is an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle — OK, it needs some work. Still, Passover movies are full of drama, tragedy and the booming, omnipresent voice of The Almighty (usually something like James Earl Jones). While Passover movies may not be jolly or joyful, they tell the story of the holiday much better than your Uncle or Zaide.
In addition to the four cups of wine and the eating of the bitter herbs, my family has another Passover tradition. Each Passover, we make ourselves comfortable and watch the 220-minute long depiction of the Exodus story: Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.” This one is a classic; a melodramatic, historically inaccurate, 1950s version of the familiar tale. No matter how overdone and cheesy it may be, I love every second of this three and half hour epic. If you have seen the film, you know the scene where Anne Baxter’s Nefretiri (fake history) lures Moses into her chambers with a moan so deep it borders between orgasm and chainsmoker. Charlton Heston (“Ben-Hur”) is the chiseled Egyptian prince turned Hebrew slave liberator, Moses. Heston embodies Moses, like Marlon Brando as “The Don” or Harrison Ford as anything. The film is kitschy, but it feels like home in a way not many movies do.
This next one stars the likes of Val Kilmer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Ralph Fiennes, Patrick Stewart and even Dame Helen Mirren. No, I am not describing a heist movie. I am talking about the 1998 animated film, “The Prince of Egypt” (now on Netflix!). Despite it being animated, the film has the cinematic scope and drama of a live action. The drawn characters and catchy tunes make the story approachable and charming. The silly, sorcerer priests, Hotep and Huy are played by the kings of comedy, two of “The Three Amigos,” Steve Martin and Martin Short, respectively. No matter how many times I have seen it, and that being many, I always end up belting out “When You Believe” with no shame whatsoever.
The most recent foray into the Exodus story was attempted in 2014 by Ridley Scott (“Alien”) in his expansive, epic, overdone “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” The film’s goal is to apparently tell the Passover story, but it feels more like Scott took his film “Gladiator” and superimposed it over a poorly told, heavily fabricated summary of the book of Exodus. I had trouble seeing Christopher Nolan’s Batman (Christian Bale) as Moses and Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) from “The Big Lebowski” as Pharaoh. The special effects rule this film (I don’t think the real plagues were as intense as Scott’s version) so much so that the story gets washed out. “Exodus” is dominated by sibling rivalry, God complexes, an excessive amount of eyeliner and unfortunately not much else. For now, let’s leave the Biblical source material to Darren Aronofsky.
These Passover-themed films offer three very different approaches to one amazing story. The first is a classic, the next a beloved childhood memory, the last is, well, last. But the final and best rendition of the Passover story, by far, is the “Rugrats Passover Special.” Initially broadcast in 1995, before I was born, it's played every year since on VHS in my family living room. Grandpa Boris, hoping to shed the light of the holiday onto the children, tells them the story of Passover. In this version, Tommy Pickles is Moses, liberating the enslaved babies (Hebrews) from the wicked Angelica (Pharaoh). It is the perfect amount of entertainment and nostalgia to add to your Passover.
So grab some matzo, sit back, relax and enjoy the story of freedom, faith and family. Happy Passover!