3) Thou Shalt Always Tell The Truth About This Piece of Cloth
I mean, sure, Memnet’s going to
Nefretiri is in her room, selecting fabric. She takes the silver/blue for the temple ceremony, wisely discards the yellow, and takes the flimsiest, lightest gauze…
Memnet appears at the doorway and says that Nefretiri will never wear that cloth, for she has brought her a cloth more revealing. Memnet, unless you’ve invented clingfilm, I think we’re there. Memnet tells her to send the maids away, and Nefretiri does.
Memnet is into a long ponderous intro, she’s been considering this moment for some time. Which somewhat begs the question of why the hell she’s talking to Nefretiri at all. Nefretiri is obsessively pro Moses, the least likely to believe her, and has the least power and motivation to do anything about Moses even if she somehow ended up wanting to.
Let’s give Memnet the benefit of the doubt and say that since Rameses muffed up getting Moses done for treason last week, that Memnet thinks if Seti is to be persuaded it must come from another source, Bithiah’s a no-go and Nefretiri is who she has access to.
Memnet launches in – Nefretiri prepares for a marriage that will not happen. Memnet will not let the Pharaoh and Rameses be betrayed. For 30 years she has been silent. Memnet… is being mockingly fitted for fabric by Nefretiri while she talks, but continues on, her dignity unabated.
Nefretiri is not shook until Memnet finally gets to her point and says that Moses is not a prince, not royal, not even an Egyptian, he is the son of Hebrew slaves. And her first response is red flag no 1 – she says she’ll tear Memnet into so many pieces even the vultures won’t find her. Nefretiri’s second thought is that it’s a lie, and it comes from Rameses. Memnet says that Rameses does not know…yet (oh, that’s a big mistake). And when Nefretiri says Memnet must repeat this to Bithiah, Memnet gives her Moses’ origin story.
Red flag no 2 – Nefretiri asks pretty pointedly if Memnet and Bithiah were alone when this happened. Which brings out an piece of business that happened offscreen, apparently Moses’ sister (Miriam, who was in the reeds) led Memnet to Yochabel so Moses could be suckled by his birth mother. Yes. Because they just weren’t taking enough risks already and right after Rameses I’s war on infants wet nurses must have been just so incredibly hard to come by.
This extra bit does, however, help The Ten Commandments out, explaining how it is that Bithiah and Yochabel are going to already know each other, when they meet a little later on.
Finally Red Flag number 3 is the one Memnet waves in Nefretiri’s face, while basically asking why Nefretiri doesn’t have the bigotry proper to her station.It’s a moment ripped right out of silent cinema – exit stage left, pursued by a vengeful man mad princess. You’ve got to give Nefretiri credit for managing to murder someone in a full cinched waist evening gown and cape.
But Nefretiri Just Needs to Shut Up
While Nefretiri is killing Memnet we stay focused on the cloth. Until Moses starts knocking. As Nefretiri rushes to the door and checks herself for incriminating evidence he asks:
“Nefretiri?Nefretiri? Have you closed your doors to make a beggar of a prince?”
OK, so these days that section of dialogue borders on the hilarious. It is outrageously elevated and histrionic, but that, along with Nefretiri’s noticeably heightened energy does sell as her feverish attempts to drag the subject away from what she has just done. She is straining towards the hope that she can get everything back to the way it was before Memnet started talking. She gets derailed by a knock on the door from a maid.
Who has news that Memnet has ‘fallen off’ the balcony. Nefretiri is giving ‘Piss right off’ vibes and keeps telling the maid to go away, but Moses is curious, and a little regretful. He wants to know what happened. Once he’s found that out and Nefretiri has summarily dismissed the maid:
We can all imagine that Memnet was not a particularly sunny presence for Moses as a child, but he’s still a bit upset and confused as to why Nefretiri, to whom he says Memnet was always a faithful servant, is so very unfeeling about this. He asks “What kind of a woman holds me captive?” Nefretiri answers that one oblique question, and keeps answering it until she starts making mistakes, mentioning “Memnet’s evil lies” and “Let her threats be buried with her”.
Trying desperately to change the subject (and I mean desperately) she drags Moses to his feet and heads outside, with a stunning line that goes:
“Look…the night’s a crown of stars and the darkness a robe of forgetfulness. Come Love, lets share them. We’ll use the moon for a sceptre…”
He looks at the thing by her feet. Moses instantly recognises it as Hebrew cloth. Nefretiri stutters, and changes tack repeatedly until she ends up at just not knowing what it’s doing there and Heston gives an amazing line reading in “Yes, you do. Tell me. “. Moses is still loving and gentle in that moment but he’s knows she’s lying and he needs to know what is going on.
And Nefretiri cracks herself like an egg. Memnet was going to take the cloth to Rameses, which would destroy Moses, so Nefretiri killed her. Moses is still confused and wants to know how this piece of cloth could destroy him. Before she tells him that, Nefretiri wants him to reassure her it will make no difference between them.
And it all comes out. Who he really is, where he really came from. And Moses leaves to ask Bithiah.
Mother, Was I a River Baby?
So, before we get into this lets take a little stock. We’ve gone from scenes on the grandest scale (building Seti’s city) to this very intimate group of two and three handed scenes showing the start of Moses’ fall, and revealing the concealed relationships of this secretly adopted son with the women in his life. The film takes some time about it, and there’s going to be a lot of raw emotion coming to the surface, particularly for the parent characters. It’s quite a shift in gears.
Cecil B. De Mille was father to four children, one biological and three adopted. And one of those three had a deliberately concealed past. His son Richard, according to the story given to the public, and repeated in the De Mille household for many years, was found in her car by Cecil’s wife, Constance. Constance was known for acts of philanthropy, particularly towards children, so was it wasn’t inconceivable that a desperate mother might have tried this. It was very unlikely, though, and most of Hollywood assumed that Richard was Cecil’s biological son by one of his three mistresses.
In fact, Richard was Cecil’s nephew, his brother William’s son, the result of his affair with the writer Lorna Moon. All of which made it easier for Constance to go along with the fake car story and accepting Richard into her and Cecil’s family. Cecil and William made a deal that whichever one died first, the remaining brother would tell Richard the truth. William died in March 1955, and Cecil followed through, and told the now adult Richard during the production period of The Ten Commandments.
So the guy that directed and filmed these scenes didn’t just know what he was talking about, he was living through the revelation of a concealed adoption as he was making the film. And while the ‘secret adoption by an Egyptian princess’ has been in the Moses story from the Biblical iterations, I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to see where in the story De Mille chooses to drill down and focus our attention being informed by De Mille’s life as well.
Princess Bithiah is not much of a liar. She tries. She has enough about her to kind of save herself when she makes mistakes, but not enough to make it convincing. She fails to convince Moses that there is nothing to see here. The end of the scene has a very tender moment in it with Moses gently reassuring his mother that some things simply will not change.
Once Moses has left Bithiah becomes a whirlwind of activity, knocking over her chair in her haste to call for her chariot – she will ride to Goshen tonight. To do something she really should have taken care of at least a decade ago. Maybe two.
The Other One
Well, this trio of scenes has been all about the women in his life. And the three basic female archetypes in drama for centuries. There was Nefretiri ‘The Maiden’, Bithiah ‘The Mother’ and now Yochabel – who has aged the hardest in every sense. Her children cannot believe a chariot has arrived in Goshen. But it almost seems like Yochabel suspects who it’s going to be.
And while her daughter looks suitably humbled by the presence of Bithiah as she arrives in their hovel, Yochabel addresses Bithiah with a level of equality. Even if she does always call Bithiah ‘Great One’, she also asks for information, she disagrees, and through all their interactions it is clear that they are two women ruled by far more by the tiny conspiracy they are in than their social difference.
Bithiah says she wants to talk to her alone and Yochabel’s two adult children look to Yochabel who nods, and they leave.
She kneels beside Yochabel and explains that Moses is coming. Yochabel starts up and says ” My son is coming here? ” but Bithiah says that no, Moses is her son and that is all he needs to know. Bithiah says that Yochabel and her children shall leave Goshen tonight. Yochabel shows where Moses’ stubborn inability to take what’s offered comes from, by saying they can’t. They are Levites, the appointed shepherds of Israel and that means they cannot leave their people.
Bithiah demands to know if Yochabel will undo all she has done for Moses, and in script, in delivery and in visualisation Bithiah is the supplicant in this scene.
Bithiah the adoptive mother counters well though, with “I gave him love”. Then she asks if it was Yochabel’s hand that dried his tears (okay, no) and then fails very hard with adding was it her heart that ached for him? Because the answer to that is sodding Yes, Bithiah. It would be Yes with a voluntary adoption, and I’d imagine still Yes even for a non related surrogate- at least in moments, or for a time. And this was emphatically a non-voluntary adoption, this was the only way she could save his life. Yochabel gets a great short speech. And grants mother Bithiah’s request. She gets in some hard ass prophecy, staring into the middle distance and promising Bithiah that if God has a purpose for Moses, that Moses will come to know of it. And fulfill it.
And, Bithiah, how the hell did getting them out of the slave city and giving them a decent life not happen twenty years ago? Apparently that’s a two monumental sacrifices and a lifetime of silence prize, not one monumental sacrifice and silence for thirty years prize. Some privilege Bithiah failed to check, there, and she does it again by promising them freedom.
Moses is a literal bright light in this scene that’s been steeped in reds and browns. He followed Bithiah here, and her attempt at control of the situation is to tell him not to come in, that there is only sorrow here. He’s not having it, and while the sight of his biological mother stops him both physically and in mid sentence, he holds on to Bithiah’s arm, and walks her over with him for his meeting with Yochabel.
He recognises her as the woman who got caught between the stones. In a universe where a god is actually taking charge and involved, that was some kind of test, and is now quite the sign, from Moses’ point of view.
He asks if he is her son. She says no and justifies the lie, starting quite angrily by saying if he approves of slavery he is not her son. She saves her greatest passive aggression for the fact that her son would not be worshiping idols, and then becomes emotional when describing who else her son would be. There is a quaver as she says her son would be a slave, his hands would be gnarled from the brick pits, his back scarred by a whip.
Bithiah makes one last plea, in the name of all the family he knows – Her, Nefretiri and Seti. But Moses continues his pursuit of truth. He asks if Yochabel will swear in the name of her god that he is not her son. Yochabel, the most skilled evader he has met tonight, says they do not know the name of their god. Dammit, she said that was her kryptonite like, 10 minutes ago. And she breaks too, repeating his name as she can no longer deny he is her son. Even when his brother and sister introduce themselves, and he introduces himself as their brother Moses, Bithiah is still trying to get everyone back on plan A, everyone’s getting out of Goshen right? They’re going away and the secrets going with them and why is no one moving?
Because Moses is talking himself in to staying here, and while he talks about finding out why any man should be a slave, old mother Yochabel’s eyes start to shine. The decision is made with this statement.
Bithiah drifts into hopelessness, and sounds like a frightened child as she asks if the life Yochabel gave him will be more use in the black pits of slavery?
Which would be a fair point if it weren’t Moses we were talking about. Moses has the political instincts of a whelk. He was just offered God Emperor or Slave, and he took Slave.
It’s going to work out for him because this universe has a real god in it that’s taking an active interest. But if Moses became Pharaoh? He’d let Rameses live, give him a respectable position of power, and be surprised as all get out when the day after he announced full emancipation he died of sudden decapitation by 50 swords before 9am.
I think putting all his skill points into the ‘Chosen of God’ skill tree is a great bet for Moses. Once he takes Bithiah outside (he’s made it clear he’s staying) Yochabel, clutching that scrap of cloth to her chest glories to her god that she is the most blessed among all mothers in the land…
He’s found a way to make a crone proud of him.
Finally, a miracle.