Moses (Christian Bale) and Nun (Ben Kingsley) star in Exodus. (photo from exodusgodsandkings.com/#)
Moses, as best I recall from Hebrew school and The Ten Commandments, was a reluctant prophet with a speech impediment who was ultimately persuaded by the unspeakable, unceasing suffering of his people – and God’s fearsome support – to confront Pharaoh and lead the Hebrews out of slavery.
My, how (biblical) times have changed. The much-anticipated Hollywood epic Exodus: Gods and Kings reinvents the saga of a people’s miraculous liberation as one rugged individualist’s journey of self-discovery, identity and profound purpose.
The fundamental matter of spirituality, which might be defined in this context as the courage and power of faith, comes up in conversation a few times but not in ways that impact the movie-goer’s experience. Your post-film repartee is more likely to centre on the curious and disconcerting form in which God (or is it an angel acting as his emissary?) appears.
Exodus: Gods and Kings, which opened everywhere Dec. 12, is a sun-blistered chunk of glowering, male-centric mythmaking. Aside from its oddly anti-climactic ending – recognizing that it’s a tough call how many desert miles and years to continue the tale after the Red Sea – this is a well-paced, continuously engaging piece of mainstream entertainment with the requisite amount of impressive visual effects (in 3D). Just don’t go expecting to be awed, or to have a religious encounter.
Title cards inform us at the outset that the year is 1300 BCE and the Hebrews have been slaves in Egypt for four centuries. However, “God has not forgotten them.”
Omitting the standard baby, basket and bullrushes, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zailian (Schindler’s List) introduce Moses (Christian Bale) as a general and Ramses II (Joel Edgerton) as his best friend since childhood and heir to Pharaoh’s throne.
Exodus immediately launches into a full-scale, screen-filling battle scene – a preemptive attack that might be construed as a comment on the Iraq War – in which the seed of Ramses II’s paranoia and jealousy of Moses is planted. This section is designed to excite male viewers but also to inoculate them against the ensuing hours of banter, revelation, wilderness wandering and domesticity before the warrior hero returns to Egypt to blow things up real good. (You think I’m kidding, but Exodus boasts fiery explosions like any other self-respecting, would-be action movie.)
Even if he was raised as a prince of Egypt, the portrayal of Moses as self-confident and militarily adept takes some getting used to. It does explain, however, his disbelief when the gutsy Jewish elder Nun (Ben Kingsley) informs him that he was a lowly Hebrew infant smuggled upriver toward the Pharaoh’s palace.
The biblical story is quite familiar to us, of course, even if creative licence is employed via verbal flashbacks and narrative compression. Consequently, Exodus is most intriguing from a Jewish perspective for the ways it alternately evokes and evades the dominant events in the modern Jewish world – the Holocaust and Israel (its founding, existence and current relationship vis-a-vis the Palestinians).
The 20th-century genocide of Jews is alluded to in myriad ways, from the burning of the corpses of slaves to the Egyptians lined up to insult the Hebrews as they leave. (The Exodus is presented as complying with Ramses II’s order to get out, so it is a deportation.)
An earlier sequence, in which Ramses’ soldiers knock down doors and brutalize Hebrew families in an effort to find (and kill) Moses, inevitably, recalls the Nazis.
When The Ten Commandments opened in 1956, the Holocaust was so recent, and raw, that it didn’t need to be referenced. The horrific genocide did inform the movie, however, in that the general public needed no help rooting unequivocally for the Hebrews’ freedom.
Another key factor was the new state of Israel’s status as a universal symbol of hope and rebirth. That image no longer holds sway, and the filmmakers acknowledge the contemporary perception that the oppressed have become oppressors.
While Moses and Joshua strategize how to cross the Red Sea, and Ramses’ chariots thunder in pursuit, they take a moment to ponder the Hebrews’ eventual return to Canaan. Now numbering 400,000, Moses points out, “We would be seen as invaders.”
This is an unexpected acknowledgement of power, one that Arab audiences (in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Egypt, where Exodus: Gods and Kings opens Dec. 25 or shortly thereafter) will welcome. Evangelical Christians in the United States, another large target market, will have the opposite response, presumably.
Jews, of course, will interpret and respond to the film from yet another perspective. The Torah does lend itself to various readings, after all. So does this robust movie, even if it is unlikely to inspire study groups.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.