Exodus: Gods and Kings
Today is the first full day of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights which draws to a close on Christmas Eve. Christmas marks the birth of the infant Jewish boy, Jesus of Nazareth, the future Messiah and “Prince of Peace” whom Scriptures record as being taken to Egypt by his parents Joseph and Mary to escape King Herod’s murderous wrath. In earlier centuries it was Egyptian rulers that oppressed and held captive God’s chosen people. Today, as Christians are an endangered diminishing minority in much of the Middle East including the Holy Land, Egypt hardly seems a haven of safety, especially in the conflict zone of Sinai where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments.
The three great Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — insistently preach peace and love yet their holy places have witnessed much violence over millennia. While in Egypt last month it was too dangerous to be able to visit Mount Sinai. When we hear of “Isis” now, we don’t think of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis, bountiful mother of the deity Horus (god of the sun, war and protection), but of the acronym for the fanatical terrorist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria that is ravaging these countries and exporting fundamentalist fantasies claiming divine inspiration.
A dreadful new horror movie out called The Pyramid has dire things happen to an unlucky team of American archeologists. Meanwhile the real world is offering a steady stream of actual horrors from ISIS videos depicting its acts of depravity against any and all “disbelievers.”
It’s certainly less troubling to be transported back to a mythologized world of great god-fearing civilizations that produced wonders at which we still marvel.
The Egypt of antiquity recorded in the Bible’s Old Testament offers some tremendously rich material for myth-making on a grand scale. The first movie I saw in a theatre — Cecile B. De Mille’s 1950s classic The Ten Commandments — made a memorable impression. And now along comes Sir Ridley Scott’s outsized Moses story Exodus: Gods and Kings to entice eyeballs in time for the Christmas season.
Scott (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven) is no stranger to the swords and sandals crusading epic. As much as such tales are typically riddled with inaccuracies, this is larger-than-life imagined history with great-man (few women) characters to match. It can be thrilling stuff when well executed, bombastic parody when not.
Scott doesn’t start off his Exodus with the familiar narrative of an abandoned baby boy retrieved from a basket in the Nile amid a slaughter of the innocents. Rather, it opens with Moses (Christian Bale) already a grown man in Memphis (no association with Elvis!), circa 1300 BC when it was the longstanding capital of Egypt’s Old Kingdom over successive dynasties. Rescued from the Nile by the daughter of Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro), Moses has been raised in the royal family as if he were a brother to the eldest son and heir Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Indeed Moses has become a great military commander and saves Ramses’ life in a battle against the Hittites.
Their fraternal bond of friendly rivalry will soon be shattered after Moses observes the city of Pithom where thousands of Israelite slaves are constructing the immense stone monuments for which Egypt is famous. From Hebrew elder Nun (Ben Kingsley) he discovers his own Hebrew ancestry. The secret becomes known to the conniving local viceroy Hegep (a campy Ben Mendelsohn) leading to a dramatic palace showdown with Ramses, now pharaoh, involving Moses’ foster mother and her servant, his sister by blood. Surviving against the odds of exile to the desert and an assassination attempt, Moses reaches the Red Sea and crosses to Midian where he will marry and have a son.
Nine years pass but of course a much greater destiny awaits than the life of a simple shepherd. We all know the story of the burning bush. The agnostic Scott adds his own twists of a mudslide with the voice of God delivered in the form of an angelic wilful child (Isaac Andrews) with whom a doubting Moses wrestles in his troubled mind. Still he leaves his family to return to Pithom on Yahweh’s mission to raise the Israelites from their abject submission, train them for a war of liberation, and lead them back to the promised land of Canaan.With older brother Aaron (Andrew Barclay Tarbet) and Joshua (Aaron Paul) at his side, Moses is aided in the destruction of Egyptian power by the impatient Almighty’s unleashing of terrifying plagues, the last the most pitiless of all. This brings the holy war of the former stepbrothers to a shock-and-awe level even before the crashing computer-generated crescendo of the parting of the Red Sea. “Let my people go,” indeed!
So what to make of this $140 million semi-biblical holiday blockbuster? It’s certainly an improvement over Darren Aronofsky’s misbegotten Noah. As far as screen-filling spectacle goes the colossal scale of the production — mostly filmed in Spain’s Almeria Desert and Mexico — is imposing. So too are the performances of a bronzed Bale and bald Edgerton in the title roles. Bale in particular portrays Moses as a complex questioning character who does not take his prophetic role lightly in the Jewish people’s messianic long march. There’s been some controversy over the lack of Middle Eastern or North African actors in the casting (Bale is Welsh, Edgerton Australian), though an epic-sized budget necessarily calls for star power.
Moses’ war of deliverance may be a religious journey. But on whichever side God, or the gods, are supposed to be, this Exodus is a movie of staggering masculine ego and violence. The female roles barely or only briefly register: Sigourney Weaver as the Pharaoh Seti’s wife; Indira Varma as the high priestess who makes an early telling prophecy; Hiam Abbass as Moses’ foster mother Bithia; Moses’ wife Zipporah (Maria Valverde); his sister Miriam (Tara Fitzgerald); Ramses’ wife Nefertari (Golshifteh Farahani). In historical fact the temples built for Ramses and Nefertari at Abu Simbel (I visited both last month) are equally grand and Egypt had great queens long before Cleopatra.
Not that Scott’s Exodus makes the slightest claim to being a documentary account. It rises or falls as a widescreen entertainment. On that score many critics, with the notable exception of Variety’s Justin Chang, have been underwhelmed (a rating of 30 per cent on rottentomatoes.com is better than The Pyramid’s seven per cent but still . . .). I’m inclined to be more generous — there are enough impressive scenes to be worth seeing.
I wonder though about that theme of divinely ordained violence as the instrument of freedom from oppression. Walking in Cairo near Tahrir Square I found striking vestiges of the Egyptian revolution’s street art. On one wall someone had linked Moses and Jesus as messengers of peace; on another’s whitewashed surface was scrawled, “Only the strong will continue.” Let’s hope for the sake of the Christmas spirit that might isn’t our only chosen way to make right.