Film Review: Moses, The Law-Giver (dir by Gianfranco De Bosio)

I should probably start this review by admitting that there’s a legitimate question concerning whether or not 1974’s Moses, the Law-Giver should be considered a film or a miniseries.  Though there was an edited version of Moses that ran for 141 minutes and which was apparently released in theaters, the unedited version of Moses is 300 minutes long and was broadcast on television over a period of 6 nights.  The long, unedited version is the one that I watched on Prime for five hours on Friday.  Having watched the entire thing in one sitting, I personally consider Moses, the Law-Giver to be a film, albeit a very long one.

Moses, The Law-Giver tells the story of Moses and how he was exiled from Egypt, just to return years later to demand that Pharaoh set his people free.  The first two and a half hours deal with Moses and Egypt.  The second half of the film follows Moses and the Israelites as they seek the Promised Land.  Moses covers the same basic ground as The Ten Commandments, just in a far less flamboyant manner.

For instance, Charlton Heston was a powerful and fearsome Moses in The Ten Commandments.  In Moses, the Law-Giver, Burt Lancaster is a bit more subdued in the lead role.  Even though Lancaster was far too old to play the role, he still gives a convincing performance.  He plays Moses as a man who starts out unsure of himself but who grows more confident as the journey continues.  He’s also a man who is constantly struggling to control his emotions because he knows that he doesn’t have the luxury of showing any sign of weakness.  Whereas Heston bellowed in rage at the sight of the Golden Calf, Lancaster comes across more like a very disappointed father who is about to ground his children.  Lancaster’s low-key performance pays when, towards the end of the film, Moses is told that he will see the Promised Land but that he will not enter it.  The sudden look of pain on Moses’s face is powerful specifically because we’ve gotten so used to him holding it all back.  For a brief moment, he drops his mask and we realize the toll that the years have taken on him.

In The Ten Commandments, Yul Brynner was a determined and arrogant Pharaoh.  In Moses, the Pharaoh (who is played by Laurent Terzieff) is far more neurotic.  He’s portrayed as being Moses’s younger cousin and he seems to be personally hurt but Moses’s demand that the slaves be granted freedom.  It creates an interesting dynamic between the two characters, though it also robs the film of a credible villain.  Whereas Brynner’s Pharaoh was a fearsome opponent, Terzieff plays the character as being weak and indecisive.  Even if one didn’t already know the story, it’s till impossible to be surprised when Terzieff finally relents and allows the Israelites to leave Egypt.

Most importantly, Moses, The Law-Giver devotes more time to the relationship between Aaron and Moses than The Ten Commandments does.  In The Ten Commandments, John Carradine’s Aaron was an often forgotten bystander.  In Moses, Anthony Quayle plays Aaron and he’s pretty much a co-lead with Lancaster.  The film is as much about Aaron as it is about Moses and it actually takes the time to try to logically develop how Aaron could have been duped into creating the Golden Calf.  Quayle gives the best and most compelling performance in Moses, playing Aaron as a well-meaning and loyal sibling who, unfortunately, is often too worried about keeping everyone happy.  For all of his loyalty to Moses, Aaron still struggles with feelings of envy and Quayle does a wonderful job portraying him and turning him into a relatable character.

As a film, Moses, The Law-Giver is never as much as fun as The Ten Commandments.  It’s almost too subdued for its own good.  On the one hand, it’s possible to appreciate Moses for taking a somewhat realistic approach to the story but …. well, is that really what we want?  Or do we want the spectacle of decadent Egypt and the excitement of the red sea crashing down on Pharaoh’s army?  You can probably guess where I come down on that.

Of note to fans of Italian cinema, the film’s score — which is pretty good — was composed by Ennio Morricone.  The film’s special effects are credited to none other than Mario Bava!  This was one of Bava’s final credits.  Unfortunately, the special effects are never really that spectacular and there’s a few scenes where it’s obvious that stock footage has rather awkwardly been utilized.  But, no matter!  It still made me happy to see Bava’s name listed in the end credits.

Moses, The Law-Giver has its moments but, ultimately, The Ten Commandments remains the Moses film to watch.

The International Lens: Past Life (dir by Avi Nesher)

First released in 2016, Past Life is an Israeli film about two sisters, their father, and their efforts to understand and reconcile with the past.

The year is 1977 and Sephi Milch (Joy Reiger) is determined to become a renowned classical music composer.  While she has the talent and the drive, she’s also a young woman trying to find success in a field that has always been male-dominated.  As a woman, she is expected to just sing and leave the composing for the men.  One of her condescending teachers even smirks about how he “allows” her to take a composition class, even though everyone knows that her cause is hopeless.

As a singer, she and her class are invited to perform in Berlin.  She goes to Germany, despite the objections of her father, Baruch Milch (Doron Tavory), a Polish Holocaust survivor.  Following her performance, Sephi attends a reception.  While her best friend admires the handsome, tuxedo-wearing men standing around them, Sephi point out that, just 40 years ago, all of those men would have been wearing swastika armbands and giving each other the Nazi salute.  Sephi approached by a woman who appears to be slightly older than her father.  The woman says that she recognized Sephi’s last name.  She asks if Sephi is the daughter of Baruch Milch.  When Sephi says that she is, the woman tells Sephi that Baruch Milch is a murderer.

Back in Israel, Sephi tells her sister, Nana (Nelly Tagar), about what happened.  While Sephi wants to put the matter behind her, Nana is intrigued.  Nana is a journalist who works for the type of underground newspaper where the walls are decorated with pictures of Lenin.  Nana is as disorganized as Sephi is driven.  Whereas Sephi keeps her emotions under control, Nana always seems to be shouting at someone and it’s rare that she’s seen without a cigarette.  In fact, it turns out that the main thing that Nana and Sephi have in common is that they both have very mixed feelings about their father.

Baruch, we learn, was hardly the perfect father.  He put constant pressure on his daughters when they were growing up and was seen as being a fearsome and temperamental figure.  While Baruch’s disciplinary style led to Sephi being determined to succeed, it also led to Nana becoming bitter with her father.  Nana goes as far as to describe him as being abusive and she speculates that he very well could have murdered someone when he was younger.  (She points out that Baruch used to perform illegal abortions as proof that their father is not a squeamish man.)  As Sephi and Nana discuss it, they realize that they really don’t know much about their father’s early life in Poland or what he did to survive the Holocaust.  It’s something that, until now, Baruch has never discussed withe either of them.

Even when their father finally gives them an explanation, Nana suspects that he’s lying.  Meanwhile, Sephi’s attempts to move on are complicated when she meets and falls in love with the son of the woman who accused her father of being a murderer….

Past Life is a frequently enthralling film, one that is all the more powerful because it’s based on a true story.  It’s a film that not only inspires us to wonder about how much we truly know about the people who are the closest to us but it’s also one that forces us to consider the different ways that people deal with trauma.  Every character in the film is, in one way or another, dealing with the past.  Some do it through anger and some do it through denial.  Baruch’s story becomes almost a Rorschach test.  The two sisters each interpret it in their own way and each has their own reaction, one that is based not only on what Baruch says but also on their own unique relationship with him.  The film also works as an examination of sisterhood.  Nelly Tagar and Joy Reiger are instantly believable as sisters, capturing both the love and the annoyance that comes from their closeness.

Past Life is available on Prime so watch it the next time you want to be challenged.

Cinemax Friday: Tactical Assault (1998, directed by Mark Griffiths)

War does strange things to people.

Captain Doc Holiday (Rutger Hauer!) was a damn good air force pilot until 1991.  During the Gulf War, he snapped and tried to shoot down a civilian airline that was flying over Iraqi airspace.  The only thing that stopped Holiday from committing a crime against humanity was his best friend, Capt. Lee Banning (Robert Patrick!!).  Banning fired on Holiday, shooting down his plane.  As a result, while Banning’s been moving up the ranks, Holiday has spent the last six years in an Iraqi POW camp.

By the time Holiday gets out, Banning is now a colonel and he’s married.  His wife (Isabel Glasser) is pregnant.  Banning seems to have everything he could want but he’s haunted by guilt over what happened to Holiday.  He arranges for Holiday to be assigned to his unit and tries to make amends.  Unfortunately, for Banning and his wife, Holiday holds a grudge and he’s played by Rutger Hauer so you know he’s not going to let things go anytime soon.

Is Tactical Assault worth tracking down?  It’s a low budge action movie that stars not only Robert Patrick but also Rutger Hauer so the answer should be obvious.  Of course it’s worth tracking down!  Robert Patrick and Rutger Hauer were direct-to-video film gods and putting them in the same movie is like getting the ghosts of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and Ralph Richardson to all star in an afterlife production of Macbeth.  Along with being convincing in action scenes, both Robert Patrick and Rutger Hauer could actually act so there’s a little more more depth to Tactical Assault than just Top Gun-style dogfights.  Of course, if all you’re looking for is Top Gun-style dogfights, Tactical Assault has got you covered.  This is a movie that understands that some things can only be settled in the sky.

Finally, the main reason you should see Tactical Assault is because it has a scene where Rutger Hauer chases Robert Patrick … in a tank!  It doesn’t get much better than that!

Music Video of the Day: Runaway Boys by Stray Cats (1980, directed by Derek Burbidge)

‘Runaway Boys’ being a little more of a song, song, not just a turnarond song, that took us a while to put together. Jim Phantom helped with the lyrics and it took a while to get right. I came up with bass going chunk, chunk, chunk, chunk, and wrote the song around that. I mean there’s no set rules, I’ll have an idea in the shower, I’ll come up with the riff or something, I’ll have it floating around in my head, I’ll get an idea and I’ll get inspired to write some lyrics, I’ll get a real catchy phrase that I like. I’ll hear someone saying something and I think, oh that’s great and he actually said something else. I don’t know, there’s no way of putting any, it doesn’t make any sense, it just comes to you.”

— Brian Setzer on Runaway Boys

Since today is Brian Setzer’s birthday, it just seems right that today’s music video of the day should come from Stray Cats.  Runaway Boys was the band’s first big hit in the UK, though it would take the U.S. a little longer to get with the program and embrace the genius that is Setzer.

This video was directed by Derek Burbidge, who directed a number of videos in the 80s.  In fact, most of the videos for The Police were done by Burbidge.  He also did the famous video for Gary Numan’s Cars.