Melbourne, December 6, 2014 (Peter Malone) - A spectacular epic, based on the book of Exodus, interpreting the character and role of Moses as a Prince of Egypt, his discovery of his Hebrew origins, his exile in Midian, his experience of God, his return to lead the people out of Egypt, clashing with Pharaoh.
It is almost 60 years since the appearance of Cecil B. De Mille's The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynnerg as Pharaoh. De Mille had already made a version of The Ten Commandments in 1923 integrating a story of the 1920s with the dramatisation of the Exodus. In more recent years there was the animated version, Prince of Egypt (1998), a Moses film in the Italian series of television movies about old Testament characters, with Ben Kingsley as Moses. In 2007 there was another animated version, called The Ten Commandments.
This film has been directed by Ridley Scott, best known for such films as Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise and Gladiator.
This has led many of the reviewers and bloggers to make comparisons between Exodus and Gladiator, many of them not appreciating the biblical foundation for the story, sometimes exhibiting an ignorance of the story and its meaning, especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is then reviewed as something of a comparison between Moses and Maximus, the gladiator, simply seen as heroes, leaders in battle, with the religious references either passed over or to be considered somewhat odd.
The literary form of the initial chapters of the book of Exodus is that of ‘saga'. And this film offers saga-like interpretations of the Scriptures. It can be noted that there are some variations which those who appreciate the biblical story will regret. One of these variations is that Aaron does not have such an important presence as in the book. He and Moses do not approach Pharaoh. There is nothing of the episode of turning rods into serpents. Aaron, along with Joshua, are supportive of Moses but their significance tends to be underplayed. Miriam appears only in a confrontation scene when Rameses wants to know the truth about Moses, his mother, and his being adopted by Pharaoh's sister. Miriam acknowledges the truth of the story but claims not to be Hebrew. She is not seen as a participant in the Exodus or the crossing of the Red Sea.
The first part of the film, the first third, explores the character of Moses. Readers of the book of Exodus know that he was a Prince of Egypt. The previous film versions show him as a brother to Pharaoh, a companion, daring in rivalry. But there is a difference in this version. The Pharaoh, Seti, is disappointed in Rameses, acknowledging Moses superiority as a man and as a leader. The Hittites are invading and there are lengthy and substantial battle sequences showing Moses' skill and leadership, with Rameses as more tentative and Moses having to save him. This is put in a context of a priestess examining the entrails to discover how the battle would turn out. She explains to Pharaoh that a leader will save a leader and be a better leader. Rameses is seen as somewhat weak, not conscientious, self indulgent. This is reinforced when Moses goes, instead of Rameses, to examine the behaviour of a viceroy.
The film then introduces the character of Nun (Ben Kingsley), father of Joshua. When Moses encounters the brutality of the Egyptian slave-drivers and kills some of them, he is told the story of his origins. Shocked, exiled, he goes through a profound desert journey, ultimately going to Midian and seeking to spend his exile there, marrying Sefora, daughter of Jethro.
So far, the strength of the film is seen in the portrait of Moses, his Egyptian culture (which we may have tended to overlook because we focus on his role in the Exodus), an active man but also a man of interiority. Christian Bale is effective in the role. With the weakness of Rameses (Joel Edgerton, also effective), the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh is well-prepared.
It is in the desert where he experiences the burning bush and the voice of God ‘I Am'. There have been great number of criticisms about this presentation of the presence of God, especially in the form of a young boy with a rather British accent. Comments have been made that this is God but, if we listen attentively to the screenplay, we hear Moses appreciating that this boy is a messenger of God. The Scriptures have made the reality of angels, representing God, presenting a face of God, something which Judeo-Christian tradition understands. Reviewers and audiences have belittled the idea of God as a boy (and with that British accent) whereas it can be accepted as in the biblical tradition, even though many might prefer a more adult appearance, The messenger/boy appears not only at the bush, but at various times in Moses' religious experience. He is not seen by Aaron, just seen by Moses himself.
Whether a ten year old boy is effective as this most significant of God's messengers is a cinematic critical issue rather than a Scriptural one. An initial controversial point was that there were too many western/European faces rather than middle-eastern actors. Probably, but...
Where Exodus is most impressive visually is with the plagues, expert special effects. Audiences who are sceptical about these plague-sagas will be interested to note how there is some ‘realistic' interpretation: crocodiles are rampant in the Nile, the blood of their fish and human victims turns the Nile red; frogs emerge from the rotting flesh and invade the homes; flies flourish and the humans are covered in boils; the sky darkens and fierce hail pounds the country, followed by locusts. Some credible cause and effect.
The deaths of the firstborn is indicated by a shadow progressing over the land and the victims stop breathing. Previously Rameses has been cruel in persecuting the Hebrews, locking people in their houses which are set alight.
Because Rameses has been portrayed as a weak character, his confrontation with Moses is not the clash of leadership. He wants to enslave the Hebrews, rather petulantly at times, and also going in private to pray to his gods.
When Moses returns to Egypt, he comes across an area of the Nile which is shallow - so we think that this is where the crossing will be. Moses loses the way as the people flee and comes to a beach with rolling waves. The crossing is more visually effective than De Mille's effects available in the 1950s. Here it is to do with the tides, the flow subsiding as the people cross, the flow not only mounting as the Egyptians enter, but a vast tidal wave, tsunami style, threatens, then crashes down.
In a dramatic touch, Rameses is overwhelmed by the water and seems to drown, but he emerges alive to face Moses once again, in defeat.
We can see why the film is titled, Exodus: Gods and Kings, because that is the main focus. A short sequence with Moses chipping into stone tablets, the messenger of God present again, endorsing the value and values of the commandments contrasts with De Mille's over-miraculous sequence where huge fire-flashes from heaven burn and carve the words onto stone.
And, as in Exodus 19, 20,24, this is just the beginning of the Exodus journey. A glimpse of Moses, growing older, still leading the people, is where this dramatization of Exodus ends.
Allowing for the above-mentioned details about the role of Aaron and Miriam, this film enables audiences to understand and appreciate Moses, his Egyptian experience, the change when he discovers his origins and how he interpreted the God-given message to challenge Pharaoh and lead his people out of a 400 year servitude. And, it combines the spectacle of the plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea with some natural explanations and divine intervention.