I recently saw Ridley Scott’s film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, starring Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton. If you’re expecting to see a movie version of the biblical narratives, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. But then, why would you expect Hollywood to produce that? If it’s the Exodus narrative you’re after, just open a Bible and read it. If you’re expecting something to rival Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, then you’ll also be disappointed. This film is far gritier, and lacks the melodrama of mid-twentieth century cinema. It also has some really good bits, too. In particular, its depiction of Egyptian palace life was, I thought, very nicely done. The human side of ancient life came through quite nicely, avoiding the stern caricatures that populate The Ten Commandments.
Exodus: Gods and Kings reinterprets the Exodus story in ways that depart distinctly from the biblical narratives. It takes up a series of themes that are very much at home in our post-9/11 world, seeing faith through a foggy postmodern lens.
Here are my brief impressions about the message of the film. I’ve kept the spoilers to an absolute minimum, so my comments here shouldn’t affect your viewing. In fact, I hope they might enhance your experience.
Having watched the film, I now understand Christian Bale’s comment that he thinks Moses was a very disturbed, possibly schizophrenic individual. His comments were evidently not based on the biblical narratives, but on the screenplay for the film. To appreciate Bale’s comments, look out for what happens when Moses chases three sheep up a mountain, and then the conversation he has with wife, Zipporah (Maria Valverde), just a few minutes later. These two ‘scenes’ bracket one of the most important scenes in the movie, but also demonstrate the cause of the change in Moses’ character.
The film continues the oft-worn path of seeing Moses and Ramesses as practically brothers. They are two people raised very closely with similar values, with circumstances eventually driving them apart and bringing them into conflict with each other. This means the movie also continues the Hollywood theme of Moses being unaware of his actual identity as a Hebrew. Nowhere does the biblical narrative of Exodus name the Egyptian Pharaoh, nor does it imply that Moses was unaware of his heritage. In fact, if anything, it implies he was aware, and that it plagued him (excuse the pun!). I was hoping that Moses would be portrayed with awareness of his heritage, but it seems the ‘unknown secret identity’ theme is too good to drop in a Hollywood production.
The film is clearly trying to say that religious faith is not neat. It has both good aspects and bad. In particular, it aims to say that there is a fine line between faith and fundamentalism, and adherents to a particular faith need to work hard at ensuring they do not slide into fanaticism. At the same time, it also shows that the circumstances people find themselves in sometimes call for desperate measures. This doesn’t excuse fundamentalism, but it helps to give it a context, and calls for reasoned development that tries to avoid it. Moses’ initial actions when he returns to Egypt clearly demonstrate all this. But in saying this, the film is not repudiating faith. On the contrary, the film is arguing for the validity of faith as a good thing, but it is not a pure good. It sees it as a messy good that is easily tainted. It therefore requires careful attention and development. The character of Moses in the early part of the film is rationalist—something that changes after his interaction with God. This change is demonstrating that reason alone is not enough to make sense of the world. Reason without faith is callous. But faith without reason is in danger of becoming fundamentalism.
The portrayal of God in the film is one of the most surprising aspects of it. It’s also the one that people of faith (Christian or Jewish) will likely find the most objectionable. The film is trying to say that biblical faith has come a long way since ancient times. Biblical faith is an advance on the superstition of ancient religions like that of the Egyptians. But in the days of Moses, biblical faith was still in its infancy. Faith needs time to settle and find a good balance, both for the humans who have faith, and for the God who sparks it. The film aims to say that Judeo-Christian belief has come a very long way from very messy, even childish beginnings. God himself has developed significantly as he has interacted with human beings. In portraying God this way, the film sees him as very much in the same mould as kings: powerful, but not omnipotent or omniscient; flawed, but perhaps trying to do his best. As such, the film creates God in human image. But this also explains the film’s subtitle: Gods and Kings.
A consequent notion of this portrayal is that other faiths might also have troubled beginnings, but given time and reason, they may contribute something valid to people’s lives. In a world that does not wish to denounce Islam while also wanting to condemn acts of terror committed in its name, the film treads a very politically correct middle path. In a postmodern way, it validates people’s chosen faith, while also encouraging critique and reform.
The film demythologises the miraculous, like the plagues and the Red Sea crossing, while trying not to undermine their impact as supernatural. This clearly demonstrates the film’s intent to show how faith and reason must go together, especially in considering natural disasters. The character of Moses also conveys this strongly. He is a man of reason who becomes driven also by religious conviction on the basis of his personal experience. The film does allow for special revelation to occur, but it also confines it to the personal realm. See, for example, the way the character of Joshua views Moses’ interactions with God from a distance. This is vastly different to the biblical narrative which portrays the revelation of Yahweh as publicly dynamic and ‘in your face’.
A very significant feature of the film is the human face it gives to the Egyptians. The biblical narratives do not name any Egyptians (not even the Pharaoh), allowing the reader to keep them all at a safe arm’s length. But the film does not do this. The final plague in particular shows that the Egyptians—the ‘other’—have faces, names, and relatives. This had quite an impact, and helped the film further its agenda to show the thin line between faith and fundamentalism.
The last few segments of the film do well in showing that Israel was baptised into Moses, and that God went with them through the wilderness.
On a different note: The Battle of Qadesh at the opening of the film was not fought in a remote desert. Qadesh was a thriving city in a verdant Syrian valley.
Ridley Scott isn’t Cecil B. DeMille, and nor should he be. But there are some good moments in the film. I never thought I’d feel sorrow for Pharaoh, but after the last plague, I did. And I never saw Moses wearing a watch!
If you’re hoping to see the book of Exodus come alive on the screen, think again. Hollywood is not interested in portraying biblical truth. Besides, we have the Bible anyway, so why should anyone expect divine revelation to come from a film? Exodus: Gods and Kings does, however, make a postmodern comment on faith and its development.