Viewers will be plagued by ‘Exodus’

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In watching Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” you may struggle to recognize it as a retelling of the story delineated in the second book of the . By design, the film is overtly repudiative of the Biblical text.

The film’s title adds to the confusion. “Exodus,” is the name of the 1960 film about the founding of the state of modern Israel.  Directed and produced by Otto Preminger, the film boasted an ensemble cast, which included Paul Newman. Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted, adapted the best-selling novel by Leon Uris. When 20th Century Fox was unable to procure the rights for the freestanding title, “Exodus,” from MGM, it arbitrarily tacked on “Gods and Kings” as an distinguishing addendum.

This “Exodus” is set circa 1300 B.C.E. in ancient Egypt, where the Hebrews have endured a 400-year enslavement. The new opus recounts the struggles of Moses (Christian Bale). As depicted here, he galvanized the emancipation of the Hebrews and their escape to an ancestral home in Canaan, the site of current-day Israel.

Previously, this subject matter was fodder for “The Ten Commandments,” a silent film, made by Cecil B. DeMille back in 1923. He remade his own film in 1956 as an epic extravaganza with Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as the Egyptian Pharoah. It represented DeMille’s swan song. Adjusted for inflation, the remake remains the seventh highest grossing film in history.

There are no contemporaneous Egyptian sources, which reference the figure of Moses. Moreover, there is no archaeological evidence, which supports the Biblical account of his 40-year journey through the Sinai desert as the leader of the wandering Hebrews. Accordingly, some historians dismiss Moses as an apocryphal Bronze Age construct.

Despite scant evidence that he actually existed, Moses is regarded as the most important of the Jewish prophets. He is considered to be the recipient of God’s Ten Commandments, memorialized on two clay tablets. Moses is also an important prophet in Christian and Islamic religious traditions.

Here, Moses is depicted as a royal Prince, who was adopted by Pharoah Seti I (John Turturro, initially unrecognizable under a shaved dome). He was raised alongside of Seti’s biological son, Ramses II (Joel Edgerton) as if they were brothers. Seti favors the adult Moses and regards him as being far more capable than his ferocious, albeit inept, natural born son. When Moses is elevated to the vaunted position of general. Rameses glowers with resentment. Throughout the film, Rameses’ personal hostility towards Moses informs the plot.

After Seti dies, Rameses succeeds him as Pharoah. When Moses is discovered to have Hebrew parentage, Rameses uses the revelation to banish him from the Kingdom of Egypt. Undaunted by the royal edict of expulsion, Moses eventually returns to Egypt.

Moses claims that God wants Rameses to release the Hebrews from slavery and allow them to return to Canaan. Pameses demands to know who is this deity that Moses invokes for authority? Thumping his chest for dramatic advantage, the outraged Rameses, bellows, “I am God, I am God.”

All this is prologue to the Ten Plagues. Courtesy of CGI, these are depicted with visual bombast. Departing from the notion that they are a demonstration of God’s rage, the film suggests an alternate, more rationalistic, explanation for the plagues.  A massive crocodile attack causes the Nile River to turn a sanguinous red with blood. This triggers a succession of various other natural phenomenon. A succession of dead fish, an explosion of frogs, and a swarm of flies ensues. The screenwriters are stumped when trying to provide a non-Deocentric explanation for the selective death of first-born male children of Egyptian families.

“Exodus” jettisons the traditional concept of Moses as a sagacious rabbi. Instead, he comes across cross between the megalomaniacal Reverend Jim Jones and a sword-wielding action hero.

Even more problematic is the depiction of God, always a daunting dramatic challenge. Canonical texts represent Yahweh  iconographically as a burning bush, with God’s voice emanating from it. In DeMille’s remake of “The Ten Commandments,” God is represented by a burning bush replete with the disembodied, stentorian voice of Walter Huston. In this film, the burning bush appears in the background. In the foreground, in fully corporealized form, God is represented by a petulant 11-year-old boy (Isaac Andrews). In subsequent scenes, the viewer sees Moses engaged in animated conversation with this God-standin. However, when the film shows the point of view of his followers, Moses is screaming at an unseen phantom entity. This bizarre artistic decision will leave viewers confused, disconcerted, and ultimately offended.

The film suggests that the parting of the Red Sea was also a natural phenomenon. While visually stunning, the dramatization is confusing in terms of geographical, motivational, and literal aspects.

What is the single most important component of the Moses’ legacy? I would argue that it was his role as a conduit of the Ten Commandments. In this film, it is reduced to a parenthetical moment. Moses, rather than the finger of God, serves as the scrivener of this Decalogue. However, as shown, it is a perfunctory act. He might as well be being scribbling his shopping list before heading to the local supermarket.

The film dispenses with Moses returning from Mount Sinai, disgusted to find the Hebrews dancing around the Golden Calf idol with abandon. This is a pivotal scene in the Bible, which accounts for the dilatory meandering of the Hebrews through the desert for four decades.

There is a built in audience for Biblical epics. The worldwide box office phenomenon of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” amply demonstrated this fact. Earlier this year, modest vehicles like “Son of God,” “Gods Not Dead,” and “Heaven is for Real” attained some commercial success by savvily targeting the faith-based community.

This image released by 20th Century Fox shows Joel Edgerton in a scene from "Exodus: Gods and Kings."  (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Kerry Brown)

This image released by 20th Century Fox shows Joel Edgerton in a scene from “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Kerry Brown)

“Exodus” has become a publicist’s nightmare. Both Ridley Scott and Christian Bale made intemperate remarks, seemingly designed to antagonize the faith-based community.  Scott, an avowed agnostic, has denounced religion as, “the biggest source of evil.” Bale castigated the character he portrays as “schizophrenic” and “barbaric.” Don’t expect church groups to organize group outings of their flock to see the film. Some Christian leaders, including Chris Stone, CEO of the North Carolina-based group, Faith-Driven Consumer, have recommended that believers actively “buy-cott” the film.

For secularists, this film will prove visually spectacular. However, CGI can’t  save “Exodus” from the screenplay’s ill-advised artistic decisions and narrative incoherence.

The Bible recounts the ancient Egyptians being subjected to God’s wrath in the form of the Ten Plagues. However, it is viewers of the latest “Exodus,” who will be plagued by this adaptation of the Old Testament tale.

**1/2 PG-13 (for violence including battle sequences and intense images) 150 minutes

Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lerneprose@gmail.com.


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