Thursday, December 25, 2014

Biblical Bore – Exodus: Gods and Kings

Christian Bale as Moses in Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings

Director Ridley Scott’s latest epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings, makes Moses the second biblical patriarch to have his story butchered by Hollywood this year. The first, of course, was Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s deluded treatment last spring. Scott’s film doesn’t punish its audience with caustic melodrama the way the second half of Noah did. He’s a better craftsman than Aronofsky, and his visual palette more sensible – the movie’s landscape has the craggy wildness you associate with the Old Testament universe. But it matches its predecessor for clouding the meaning of the central narrative themes and injecting bizarre, half-baked spirituality into them. The result is a rare feat: a movie that’s at once both bloated and a fiasco.

The Exodus story is the organizing principle for the Pentateuch, making it the hermeneutical key for the Hebrew Scriptures and even the entire Bible. On the one hand, it’s about the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt – the Israelite nation’s history of its own creation. On the other, it’s a disclosure of the saving power of God, who hears the cry of the poor and answers it. It’s theophany, a revelation to humanity of the truth: that Yahweh is the true God, all others, false. God calls people both to knowledge of himself, and to creating a just society. This divine activity unleashes a great struggle between the power of empire and idolatry – Pharaoh – and the power of justice and God. You can’t get more dramatic than that.

And yet filmmakers display an uncanny ability for abandoning the core story in the vain presumption that they can replace it with “relevant” ideas and “creative” interpretations. Every director and storyteller has to interpret a given text; the Exodus narrative itself is a patchwork of several distinctive interpretive threads. But they add up to a cohesive whole, something Exodus doesn’t do. And there’s a difference between offering an interpretation of a story and totally eviscerating it. Scott’s followed the path of the DreamWorks team and their 1998 movie The Prince of Egypt. In that animated film, the relationship between God and Moses – and the battle between them and Pharaoh – is reduced to a footnote. What takes its place is a buddy story gone wrong: Moses and Pharaoh are actually brothers, best friends in their youth turned reluctant enemies later on.

Joel Edgerton and Christian Bale in Exodus
Exodus follows this lead. The movie opens with an adult Moses (Christian Bale) serving as a warring general under Pharaoh, brother to Ramses (Joel Edgerton), the heir apparent. In fact, Pharaoh (John Turturro, in RuPaul eye liner) has even more faith in his adopted son than his does in his own blood. Although, I shouldn’t say adopted – Moses doesn’t yet know the real story of his birth. He completely believes in his Egyptian identity and lives with it quite comfortably. He saves Ramses in a battle, fulfilling some invented prophecy by an Egyptian priestess, and goes to Pithom to sort out a corrupt viceroy on his father’s behalf. Pithom is where the Hebrews labor in slavery, and when a council of elders let Moses in on the secret of his origins, he gets royally pissed off and kills two Egyptian guards to let off some steam (they “mistake” him for a Hebrew, a title he doesn’t take kindly to).

What a completely inane opening. It’s not just that it’s totally invented, though it is. The actual biblical text never refers to a brotherly relationship between Moses and Pharaoh, never mentions Ramses at all, for that matter. And, in fact, he’s quite aware of his status as Hebrew – there’s no modern idea of an identity crisis anywhere. No, the problem is that when you start to shed these pieces, you lose the meaning of the whole picture. The story of Moses’ birth falls in the genre of legends about heroes who escape death early on because of divine protection toward a later purpose (Jesus’ birth fits in here). The placing of the infant Moses in a floating basket to escape death parallels the Noah story; the Hebrew word used for basket is the same word used for ark earlier on. Like the older patriarch, Moses will save his people by leading them through watery destruction (maybe it’s fitting, then, that Hollywood’s dismantled both of them this year). To be sure, in the Bible, Moses does murder an Egyptian in a crime of passion. But he kills the man after seeing him abusing a Hebrew slave. The act means to display Moses’ impulsive outrage against injustice, not sulking pettiness over being humiliated. These initial episodes set up and foreshadow later developments. They’re also brilliant literary devices, establishing Moses’ character early on: he’s got the makings of a savior, but needs some maturation.

Adapting this story should be a matter of connecting the dots. The scriptural text lays out all the major narrative building blocks, with a central conflict, that a screenwriter could want. All that’s left is filling in those moments with human material that can bring the people of the story to life for a modern audience. But in lieu of this approach, Scott and his team of writers (Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steven Zaillian) have decided both to tamper with those building blocks and also offer absurdly melodramatic filler. Instead of the conflict between God and man, we get a stab at a domestic drama among the relations of Pharaoh. After the king dies, his household falls to bickering. Ramses has a chip on his shoulder for reasons that aren’t really explained, and his mother (a barely present Sigourney Weaver) hates Moses for reasons that aren’t explained at all. Meanwhile, core characters fade into the backdrop. Moses’ real sister and mother (or is it his nursemaid?) appear briefly to tell him who he is, but soon recede, as does Aaron his brother, who plays a major role in the biblical text. Ben Kingsley adds some gravitas and sense of mystery as a Hebrew elder, but he too is relegated to a minor status over time. The movie never bothers to humanize anybody, including the Hebrews. As a result, we hardly feel any sympathy for them; it’s treated with such broad and banal strokes that their plight induces no particular care for specific people.

Christian Bale and Ben Kingsley in Exodus

The narrative moves too quickly over major developments – Pharaoh’s death, Ramses’ ascension, Moses’ flight due to his brother’s irrational fear of him now that his true identity’s revealed. Rather than a vigilante for justice on the run, Moses is the reluctant warrior in exile. Where he’s going, we never know. After some impressive shots of mountainous terrain and sandstorms, he winds up at a small village, defending a beautiful woman at a well from some rude shepherds (this episode is, in fact, in the text). Before you know it, he’s married to the woman – the film provides no connecting scenes to develop their relationship or show any changes in Moses. In a stunning lack of perception, the filmmakers make the man some kind of religious skeptic initially; he and Ramses mock the Egyptian priests in favor of reason, and he questions his wife’s “faith,” as he calls it. The only thing more absurd than the idea of a citizen of the ancient world separating reason and religion is the way Scott has Moses come to belief. The encounter with the burning bush – surely one of the most famous in all Western consciousness – is turned into a ludicrous episode in which Moses falls unconscious and experiences God as a projection of part his psyche. The bush? God’s dialogue with Moses? The calling of him to be a prophet? Gone. Instead we have an anachronistic insertion of a modern understanding of religious experience, the whole event being internal to Moses’s own self.

The text is quite clear, however, that this is an revelation of something quite real and distinct from Moses: The Yahweh god, the god of Abraham, though now revealing his full identity to Moses. Here God famously names himself “I AM” or “I will be what I will be,” the idea being that God is the ground of being. God is a verb, the activity of beginning, of bringing into being. Scott jettisons all of these concepts, which is astonishing given their profound import. The image of the burning bush that is not consumed is an illogical one, which underscores the wondrous encounter Moses has. He has an attentiveness to the world, seeing what should not be, but is. It forces him to turn aside and look at it. God is scary and unsettling, shaking up our ideas of what can and cannot happen.

That goes for what God tells Moses, too. The Bible stresses that God has heard the groaning of the people and remembers his covenant with Abraham. This dynamic forms part of an Old Testament pattern: the people lament, God hears and remembers, and, taking notice, helps them. The people then respond with praise. Rather than indifferent and removed, the God of Exodus is active and involved in history. God is fiercely concerned with the here and now, with material reality, in society, in riches and plenitude. He desires a community in which all people are sated. Instead, the Egyptians have reduced the Hebrews to misery through economic exploitation and social degradation. God resolves not just to alleviate their suffering, but totally overthrow the human system that caused it. The Exodus story is a revolutionary text, as God’s activity unleashes a grand drama between the forces that oppose such an upheaval.

Golshifteh Farahani and Joel Edgerton in Exodus
You’d never know any of this from Scott’s movie, though. Nor that Moses is meant to be God’s instrument and prophet. Instead, this petulant deity (small in both mind and stature) tells Moses he needs a general; rather than trade the sword of violence for the staff of God’s power, Moses is to continue using his sword and relying on human power. These choices further muddy the central conflict, as does the decision to have the Hebrews wage a guerrilla war against the Egyptians under Moses’ leadership. Setting aside the basic question of how the hell a bunch of slaves would be able to arm themselves and train for battle with no one noticing, this approach leaves the story in tatters: it’s a battle between the power of God and that of Pharaoh, not a modern insurgency against totalitarian rule. That’s just how the movie portrays the Egyptians, though, who start committing Nazi-like atrocities while Moses holds a knife to Pharaoh’s throat and makes his demands. So much for trusting in God; Pharaoh, for his part, tells Moses that freeing the slaves would pose significant economic problems.

What in the hell? This isn’t Lincoln versus Douglas debating slavery in the antebellum South. This is a contest narrative in which the God of the Israelites battles against Egypt and the power of an emperor. The plagues are meant to work like boxing rounds – with each one, Pharaoh grows more obdurate and double-crossing. They supposed to astonish one and all into knowledge of God, miracles done with “mighty hand” and “outstretched arm.” But they all run together in Scott’s handling, into an undifferentiated, gratuitous spectacle. The word of the Lord never speaks through Moses, who never confronts Pharaoh with God’s demands. God, too, fades to the background; it’s not clear that these plagues are the work of his hands. In fact, the Egyptians try to explain them away as the workings of natural phenomena. Again, ancient peoples did not – could not – separate religion and nature into our categories. Moreover, in the actual story, everybody knows that this is a supernatural contest. It’s powerful Egypt and her deities versus the god of her pathetic slaves. And the ironic reversal is that God is on the side of the oppressed. When the Egyptian advisers started talking to Pharaoh like infectious disease specialists, I wanted to run. Likewise when some of the Hebrews wonder if Moses is schizo given his predilection for talking to invisible friends. This isn’t just bad theology – it’s bad storytelling. And it’s boring.

The movie constantly aborts its own emotional shifts. In one of the few effective scenes, Pharaoh brings Moses his dead son, killed by the Angel of Death in the ninth plague. (Couldn’t Scott have rendered this moment more creatively? At least DreamWorks and Cecil B. DeMille had a spectral hand of light coming out of the heavens to invade the home. All we get here is some vague wind blowing out candles.) When the prophet, er, general, tells Pharaoh that no Hebrew child died, the king blinks hard – finally the idea that God is at work for the Hebrews and against Egypt hits him, and the audience. But any elation we may feel once the slaves are freed soon abates as the film cuts immediately to a brooding Pharaoh, who resolves to go after them for reasons that, once again, are never explained.

More gutting of the core story follows; the Red Sea episode, even with CGI, is totally underwhelming. DreamWorks rendered the crossing more powerfully back in the Stone Age of computer animation. More surreal encounters with Moses and “God” occur on Mount Sinai – did you know Yahweh serves tea? I don’t know how Christian Bale, who actually gives a redeeming performance here, keeps a straight face given the facial hair he sports and the scene partner he must work with. The Passover ritual receives little attention at all, though it’s as important, one could say, as the burning bush segment. The ritual serves to remind the people of the point of the story: God saved you from oppression. Therefore, you must not oppress anyone else. God calls the Israelites to be an unprecedented society, one that worships him alone and creates a community with no disparities. I couldn’t tell you what this movie is about, though. Its central meanings never materialize. Despite Scott’s knack for kinetic action filming and ancient battle scenes, his lackluster Exodus misses the spiritual heart beating at the center of a great story.

Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, The Rumpus, 3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain.

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