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If your entire tribe has just committed mass suicide, and you are among the lucky (or unlucky) few left to tell the tale, who better to spill your guts to than Sam Neill? The man who went head-to-head with a ravenous T. rex and left poor, piano-playing, mute Holly Hunter fingerless (the price of hooking up with Harvey Keitel) saunters his way into the opening scene of this very silly two-night CBS miniseries — executive produced by Christian-entertainment power couple Roma Downey and Mark Burnett — and proceeds to lend gravitas to what is otherwise goofball.
Neill plays Titus Flavius Josephus, a real-life figure who was born a Jew, enslaved by the Romans then gained his freedom and became the empire’s devoted historian. For his latest assignment, he’s tasked with talking to Shirah (Cote de Pablo) and Yael (Rachel Brosnahan), two women who are among the few survivors of the siege of Masada.
What is the siege of Masada? Again, something out of real life: It was a lengthy battle in the First Jewish-Roman War in which a Roman legion conquered a mountain fortress in the Judean desert where 960 Jews (many of them members of an extremist group known as the Sicarii) had taken refuge. When it was clear the Romans would indeed breach their walls, most of the Masada populace killed themselves via mutual murder (this was a way to avoid committing the sin of self-harm and thus risk damnation). Only two women and five children are reported to have survived.
Author Alice Hoffman reimagined the story through the eyes of those two women in a New York Times best-selling novel that boasts an effusive pull quote from Toni Morrison. It’s doubtful any Nobel Prize winners will be giving kudos to the small-screen adaptation, which is filled to the brim with chintzy special effects and subpar acting, plus the kind of Harlequin-novel eroticism that went out of fashion long before Fabio stopped shilling for I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.
The first night of the miniseries details Shirah and Yael’s upbringing: Yael’s father, Joseph Bar Elhanan (Manuel Cauchi), blames his daughter for killing her mother in childbirth and he hires Shirah to look after her. But Shirah disgraces herself by having an affair with (and getting impregnated by) married man Eleazar Ben Ya’ir (Mido Hamada) — who eventually will lead the Jews at Masada — and is banished by Joseph. She promises Yael that they will meet again, but first both women must face some inner demons, as well as avoid the encroaching Roman army, led by the vengeful Lucius Flavius Silva (Sam Hazeldine), which is out to enslave and eradicate as many Jews as possible.
After a bunch of time-killing interludes involving everything from a rebellious daughter (Kathryn Prescott) who wants to be more warrior than woman to a jealous ghost who looks like she stepped right out of the videotape in Ringu, our two heroines finally cross paths again in Masada. There, during the film’s second part, they take care of a tower where doves congregate (hence the title), have steamy interludes with their respective love interests (Shirah with Eleazar and Yael with a strapping slave played by Diarmaid Murtagh) and wait glumly for those massing Romans to launch an attack.
Neither de Pablo nor Brosnahan make for especially compelling protagonists; they seem to be stuck in defiant-glare default mode throughout, even when cuddling up against the sculpted chests of their manly paramours. And director Yves Simoneau (late of the Jamie Lee Curtis psycho-matriarch thriller Mother’s Boys) fails to give the proceedings any sense of epic grandeur. Imagine Cecil B. DeMille directing Game of Thrones on a Sharknado budget — which honestly might be a better use of your brainpower.
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