Epic ”Exodus” Actually Delivers in the Desert
Grandiose. As one might expect. With “Exodus – Gods and Kings”, Ridley Scott has decided to take on one of the most mythological stories of the Old Testament and personally I think he did something pretty powerful with this material. Not least visually. But he also managed to, within the confines of a special effects-heavy adventure, story describe a complicated relationship between two men who grow up as brothers and then more or less are forced to become enemies. ”Ben Hur” for a more modern age? Somewhat symptomatic it may be that the director in the closing credits immediately dedicates the film to his brother Tony, who tragically died a few years ago.
Regardless of what primary inner motivations the established auteur Scott had to interpret this legendary passage from the Bible, it seems to me he has actually understood the essence of the drama at hand. He (and the four scriptwriters, of whom Steve Zaillian is probably the most well-known) have decidedly added to and eliminated a lot from the original text, but this interpretation doesn’t come off as overtly radical or selfconsciously postmodern.
The protagonist (well, Moses) is a man who we first meet as a young adult where he has been raised in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh, unaware of his Hebrew heritage. But through coincidences (or the work of God) he is made aware of exactly that, and the consequences are that a young general, highly regarded in the upper echelons of society, winds up in the desert, starts a family there and slowly adapts to this new life. Until the is presented with that famous proverb-making revelation in the shape of a burning bush; something familiar to many people even today, if nothing else than as a metaphor, an abstract image that tends to turn up in different contexts. An enslaved people awaits a saviour. And Moses (incarnated by former Batman Christian Bale, but you knew that) does indeed accept the challenge.
As a spectacle, it sparkles regularly. Seriously! Scott takes the opportunity to create action and massive set-pieces whenever he can. But there are also a number of slower, deliberately restrained sequences where relations and emotional resonance get to build up. Zipporah (played by María Valverde), Moses’ wife during his time in exile from the court of the Pharoah and before the burning bush, gets a surprisingly prominent role and a welcome one. Some other characters we might know better from the Biblical version are relegated to the background, such as Moses’ siblings Aaron and Miriam. Joshua, later on a legendary leader in his own right, is present at an early stage and frequently lurks around close to Moses, but has surprisingly few lines in the film, considering that the actor Aaron Paul has proven himself as more than able to deliver verbally in ”Breaking Bad”.
God, however, speaks. Through a little boy. Actually a device that gives the picture a kind of mischievous attitude at times. This way of approaching the doubting general and rebel and his communication with the Almighty can be interpreted in different ways. He might suffer from hallucinations, wishful thinking or have a genuine vertical connection. Neither the director or his star have stated any explicitly religious view of the story they’re telling. You could have that in mind while watching them let loose the apocalyptic plagues on Egypt in order to convince the present Pharaoh Ramses that it’s time to let the Hebrew slaves leave his country. The advisers of the ruler, especially one played by Ewen Bremner, are trying desperately to deliver credible alternative explanations to the Wrath of God when the usually life-giving river is suddenly filled with blood, an event followed by swarms of flies and locusts, an invasion of frogs and other unwelcome guests, leading up to the Real Deal, something you either know of beforehand or not – and therefore ought to remain undisclosed here. These hollow evation tactics make the advisers seem like involuntary providers of comic relief and might also include some form of comment on these days looming threats and our unwillingness to face them head on. Maybe.
This sequence is a point in the film where Scott and his special effects studio really delivers. They create a flow and a context where the disastrous circumstances are illustrated and shown in a highly effective and picturesque way. If I generally have my reservations towards the 3D-technique as a phenomenon and often wonder whether it really creates more depth or rather interferes with our own ability to read the threedimensional world our eyes spontaneously look for, in this instant we end up in the middle of the whirlwind and the misery with no chance of getting away. I am impressed. But that’s me. I know that many viewers, film critics especially, have expressed a rather skeptic attitude regarding the visual imagery – and the film as a whole…
Are there sequences that could have been edited more heavily? Yeah. But nothing annoyingly dull or prolonged. The story begins, as we have seen, with a relatively young leader presented with an omen about things to come, from the soothsayers whom he doesn’t really trust that much. Roughly two hours later we find him and his people in the midst of a terrifying natural phenomenon which signals danger as well as opportunities. If you’ve read the Old Testament you might know what it refers to. And there’s the climax, followed by a coda not everyone will find convincing. But I was more or less satisfied with the way it was concluded.
After the viewing, a group of people evaluated the experience together and we certainly didn’t agree on everything, but at least more so than last spring when some of us had been watching ”Noah” together. This time the majority was in a better mood, albeit with reservations like the fact that Pharaoh Ramses seemed too weak for his position, that God was too absent, that some established actors had too little to do (like Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver) and why did Moses lead with a sword instead of a staff? Comparing with ”Noah”, this epic should logically be less controversial for the audience who prefer their Biblical films more traditional.
What sources, if any, were consulted apart from the Bible in this case? I should have researched that more than I did, but interestingly enough the film was banned in Egypt and some other places, allegedly because of so called historical inaccuracies. What does the film tell us about slavery as a societal institution? That it’s something economically advantageous for the ruling class and hence very hard to let go of? And what does it have to say about societies’ ability to stick together? Moses himself asks himself in a brief but thought-provoking scene what will happen with the unity of his people ”when we are no longer running from something”.
Yes, there are a lot of interesting aspects here. And impressive. Will ”Exodus” go down in history as one of the Great Biblical Epics of all time, or will it be swept away by the desert winds and become a parenthesis? I am not sure about what will be its legacy in the long run, but maybe the recent holidays made my positive spirits get the upper hand. It might be a minority opinion, but I had one of the more inspiring movie experiences of the past year, right here.