Exodus – Gods and Kings (2014)

Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, María Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Andrew Tarbet, Isaac Andrews
Screenplay Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian

The prospect of a big budget film based on The Holy Bible is immediately deserving of skepticism these days. For some, like Aronofsky, use it to “explore the space”  adventurously within the original source. Most others, like Scott, openly admit that they shape the story and the cast to make the film as profitable as possible around the world. In this way, it’s kind of like a Transformers movie, but in the worst way possible. The formula works financially, as a little over 3/4 of the films $270 million gross has been outside of North America. We can expect certain allowances and even certain differences, which for many detract from the sincerity of the approach.

Scott is one of the most visually striking, if sometimes editorially distant, directors of our time. His desire for clarity of vision at times leaves the story in its wake. Having four writers for this tale further raises a red flag. The hopes for this experience are high, but the expectations are minimal.

The result is a remarkably deft presentation that does a good job giving a plausible reading of what everyone who has seen The Ten Commandments will recognize.  We start out seeing Moses and Ramses II as brothers in arms. If not brothers by blood, their combination spills much blood.

Moses (Bale) is a skeptic of the Gods Egypt worship. His confidence is more with himself than anything else. Ramses II (Edgerton) is to succeed his father, Seti I (Turturro) as Pharaoh of Egypt. His confidence in himself is lacking. The love between the brothers is not lacking. When Moses saves the life of Ramses II on the battlefield, the dynamic changes between the two. This unease is exacerbated through the death of Seti I, until a secret about Moses reaches Ramses II through the treacherous lips of Hegep.

Ramses confronts Moses about this, setting in motion a chain of events that leads Moses to become the leader of the Hebrews. This, of course is all the work of God. Moses is a Hebrew who by prophesy was to be the leader of the Hebrew slaves. Soon enough, Moses is banished, goes on a journey in which an attempt is made on his life thanks to Ramses II’s mother Tuya (Weaver). Escaping that, he then finds love (Valverde) and starts a family. Nine years later, he is called upon by God to fulfill his destiny and free his people.

At this point, Ridley Scott chooses to show the true meaning of the word Israel: to wrestle with God. To that end, we see Moses speaking with Malak (Andrews as an Angel of God) in barely civil terms. This is a verbal, philosophical and religious wrestling match. Scott makes a conscious choice to show Moses as believing what he’s seen, but not being able to completely accept what he’s been told. This perspective is something many people can identify with more than the Moses of tradition who was maybe more accepting. To be sure, the plagues and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was as much for Moses’ belief as it was for Pharaoh’s. This is made clear n this version of the story.

The acting of the leads is excellent. This is big budget Bale at his best. We can see the journey he’s made from beginning to end in crystal clear terms. His relationship with Ramses II demonstrates how love can be driven south by fear and eventually, greed. Edgerton’s performance, more subtle, is also more memorable. His Ramses II rivals Yul Brenner’s in depth and scope. The greatness in both performances is in that we can see ourselves in both of them. They are not straight up good versus evil. They can be seen as examples of God’s power.

Of the supporting performances, only Mendelsohn’s wicked and deceitful Hegep stands out. His actions are integral as those of Pontius Pilate. A career in middle management which one would defend by shining the light on others. The rest have almost no moments of actual personality as they do reciting plot points. One wishes we would have had more time showing the dichotomy with Aaron (Tarbet) and Ramses II as brothers of Moses. What we get instead is a series of blank stares from Aaron, watching Moses talk to (apparently) no one. It’s a missed opportunity.

What can be admired about Exodus… is the focus. God’s wrath shown through Malak. Moses and Ramses II’s growth into their historically significant roles against one another. We see the wrestling match between Moses and God. We get that Ramses II moves from uncertainty to maniacal in his demand for respect and love. This is feeling of inadequacy is subtly hinted at in the triangle relationship between the two brothers and their father, Seti I.

If one is looking for historical accuracy, it should be noted that the events are more interpretations than they are Biblically accurate. The plagues are expounded upon, and the Israelites suffer as much as Egyptians. It is entertaining to see the leading minds and religious experts try to explain to the Pharaoh how one plague might lead to another or be easily overturned by ritual.

It is less entertaining to see Moses lead the Hebrews to perform what are essentially acts of terrorism against the Egyptian women and children, and then rationalize it in the name of their freedom. One could conceive that this is Ridley Scott taking sides on terrorism in the modern day, which is something Israel has to battle constantly. If he is trying to make a point about Israel’s hands being dirty, then he is making too big of a stretch based on historical evidence. This is but one small segment in the story. It does detract from the character that Scott, Bale and company hope to create, as it is not the same Moses that would historically downplay his earlier heroism in saving his brother on the battlefield.

Still, the overall story is solid enough and the visuals (as usual) striking enough that it makes the film worth watching. It’s not close to his best work, but it is inspired and it certainly does not plumb the depths of Robin Hood. Just don’t expect to have your local Christian or Jewish worship center presenting this film any time soon. On the other hand, we should just feel fortunate that the ending doesn’t take place in China.

(**** out of *****)

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