Gods, kings and a bellicose boy

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Christian Bale plays Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film
Christian Bale plays Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film

FILM REVIEW
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Directed by Ridley Scott
On DVD and Blu-Ray: March 2015
154 minutes
Rated PG-13

“The Lord is a man of war,” says the book of Exodus, and those six words inform the new dramatization of the mass exodus of 400,000 Jews from their captivity in Egypt around 1300 BC. In Exodus: Gods and Kings God tells Moses “I need a general.”

We actually don’t see much of the Jews, except en masse. Instead, the film chooses to concentrate its attention on the complicated relationship between two princes of Egypt: one, Rameses (Joel Edgerton), is destined to become absolute leader of a powerful empire; the other, Moses (Christian Bale), is a celebrated general and trusted right hand to the current pharaoh. Ostensibly the monarch’s nephew, Moses is cousin to Rameses, but they have been raised as brothers. And throughout the story, their relationship is a complicated intertwining of sibling rivalry and a genuine brotherly bond-a bond that persists, beaten and bruised, but still there, even when they find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict of, well, biblical proportions.

The story is familiar enough: Moses is born Jewish and secretly adopted as an infant by the pharaoh’s sister, who raises him as her own son. When this fact becomes known, Moses is expelled and exiled: he is raised as an Egyptian prince, and he has proven his talent and loyalty time and again; but his rank, and the esteem in which he has erstwhile been held, are stripped away in the blink of an eye-a fate that can befall any of us-all on the strength of his blood-ties to a people who have been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years.

But Moses’ fall from worldly grace brings him to a different kind of grace, when he is enlisted by God to be his general and to extricate the Jews from their long captivity in Egypt. Oddly enough, God is depicted in the movie as bellicose young boy with an English accent. It’s an interesting take on the Creator that seems more akin to a Greek god arbitrarily appearing in some human form, than a convincing shape for the Creator of the Universe to assume. More importantly, it’s a persona that does not even try to convey holiness or love. This belligerent child is used to giving orders, not explanations or expressions of empathy. Indeed, religiosity is conspicuous by its absence in this film.

Recruited by this higher power, Moses trains volunteers and launches a campaign of guerilla warfare against the regime. But it fails to achieve the desired result (pharaoh’s heart was hardened, after all), leading to this exchange: “Where have you been?” asks Moses. “Watching you fail,” answers the boy-God. (Moses gets a good line, asking his taskmaster why he’s suddenly so impatient after 400 years!) God takes matters into his own hands, visiting the proverbial ten plagues upon the Egyptians-besetting them with frogs, locusts, boils, hail and the rest. But the filmmakers sneak in an extra one-by starting things off with a flotilla of oversized crocodiles ferociously attacking some boats, killing their occupants and then themselves. The ensuing blood in the water soon taints the Nile for miles in both directions. Moses balks at the final plague, which is the death of the nation’s firstborn; but this God is not for turning.

Director Ridley Scott imbues the movie with a gritty realism, though he can’t resist indulging in hollow effects-driven spectacle during the second half.

Bale has a certain dark charisma as Moses, and he abjures the self-righteous holier-than-thou intonations of Charlton Heston in 1956’s The Ten Commandments. But he remains a soldier, rather than a spiritual leader. There is a humorous moment or two, such as when a pagan priestess is asked, “What do the entrails say?” only to dryly reply, “They don’t say anything. They imply.” And those of us who prefer the kinder, gentler message of the New Testament may find common cause with the question, “What kind of fanatics worship such a God?” which is exclaimed in despair after the mass killing of Egyptian children by supernatural means. The question might have meant more, however, if it hadn’t been uttered by a man (Rameses) who is hardly above such ruthless measures himself. What the film fails to deliver is even an iota of emotional connection for the viewer to its characters and events.

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

Copyright © 2014 by John Arkelian.

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John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

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