Masada, 70 B.C.E.
It has been a big couple of years for the Bible with “The Red Tent”, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”, “Noah” and now “The Dovekeepers”. There has been, however, one problem for all four films—not one of them is particularly good. I am not sure if there is a message in that or not.
“The Dovekeepers is based on the true events at Masada in 70 C.E. (which in itself is interesting since we have no real eyewitness accounts). After being forced out of their home in Jerusalem by the Romans, 900 Jews went to a fortress at Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. Besieged at Masada, the Jews held out for months against the vast Roman armies. The film attempts to give us the events from the perspective of a few extraordinary women who arrive at Masada with unique back-stories. What they share a common bond for survival. The women, who work together daily as dovekeepers, all conceal substantial secrets.
“The Dovekeepers” is premiering as a miniseries on CBS television in two two-hour broadcasts. It is based on the novel by Alice Hoffman and I understand that it is emphasize both the biblical an historical aspects of the story.
Yael (Rachel Brosnahan) and Shirah (Cote De Pablo) star as two women telling their tale to a judgmental Roman scholar, Josephus (Sam Neill). They are joined by an ensemble, but principally Kathryn Prescott and Diego Boneta.
It features strong women, the central players, who listen to their hearts. We see them as heroic and noble, though they engage in adultery and other unsavory acts. They pray to a god whose orders they do not obey, and live in a time where such trespasses could bring severe punishment. Are we to admire them for sleeping with married men at a time that women could be killed for doing such a thing? We ask ourselves if bravery also means disregarding the rules and morals of society.
Since the main stress here is on the women, the male characters are not as developed and some of them seem to be there just to give us something to look at. There is a lot of romance and many obstacles that prevent happy endings. I really wish I could say that this is great storytelling but it isn’t. The movie moves very slowly and there is really only one point of view but it is not a total waste of time. There are some very good parts.
This movie is excellent in the way it portrays the multidimensional aspects of the major characters on both sides. Flavius Josephus, a Jew born and raised in Jerusalem, is the only historian to provide a detailed account of the Great Jewish Revolt and the only person who recorded what happened on Masada so he is the source along with whatever anyone else wanted to add.
Instead of the emotions and the struggles of women faced with horrendous decisions, while still trying to have day-to-day lives, we also get gratuitous sex, and adultery almost all the way through and with no balance. I just do not understand so much emphasis on sex when there was so much here that could have been put on the screen, the concept of having the surviving women tell their story to another Jew, who had chosen to survive among the Romans, was a novel concept that never really came to fruition.
Masada is one of the most inspiring stories in Jewish history, an example to many of great martyrdom and courage and most of what we know of Masada comes from the writings of Josephus, a Jewish-born historian who wrote “The Jewish War.” For many years there was some question about its veracity, until the actual site of Masada was identified in the mid-19th Century. Still, discrepancies remain. Only a few bodies and the count varies depending upon the source — were found, not the 960 who supposedly died there.
Still, whether Masada is legend or history, there is enough here for an intelligent book and film.As Josephus (Sam O’Neill), says: “Never forget. You are my prisoner and you will remain so until I hear the whole story.”
Shirah is tattooed, which means she is a prostitute or a witch or both. It’s not entirely clear. Yael’s father hates her because his wife died when Yael was born. Both women find married men exciting. We are told that Shirah and her daughter were raped by bandits. Thankfully, the daughter repressed that memory, prompting her to ask: “Is that why you made me live as a boy?” Shirah tells us that she has vowed that no one would hurt her and that she changed her name and decided that she would be a boy to save her from “the fate of women”. I do not recall in all of the years that I have studied the bible ever seeing something like that. And then there is the question of the doves. How many people (women) does it take to raise doves and if they were uses, as I have read, for food….
What should have been cut is dialogue of this sort, which is repeated throughout the film. In its place, someone might have explained why the Jews needed so many doves at Masada that five women (in the book) and two main ones (in the film) were needed to take care of them. (“The Siege of Masada” documentary suggests that the doves were kept as a food source and that their excrement was used as garden fertilizer.) I have been a student of Jewish studies all of my life and I am awe struck that Eleazar ben Ya’ir, the commander at Masada, passionately argues that death is better than capture, he tells his girlfriend Shira that she needs to escape so the story of the martyrs lives on. In Judaism the highest quality is life and nowhere is non-being preferred to being. There is a wonderful word in Yiddish to describe this film—hazerai.