“Exodus: Gods and Kings” And Frogs, too
2 & ½ popcorns
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Filmgoers expecting some world-changing revelation from Ridley Scott’s retelling of how Moses led the Israelites out of bondage will probably be disappointed by “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” Save for the usual dabs of poetic license that no iconic saga can escape when given the epic movie treatment, it is apparent that the director’s chief impetuses are tradition and responsibility. As such, combined with the best special effects we mortals can conjure some 34 centuries after the real miracles were to have taken place, he is largely successful.
Still, if of an age, the rules and customs of popular culture demand that you make at least a respectful comparison to Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956), heretofore the accepted filmic representation, its chided Hollywoodization notwithstanding. It sure gained my little kid reverence when it became one of only two movies the whole family attended en masse: ‘This must be important.’ I somehow doubt Mr. Scott’s CGI-enhanced rendition will leave as indelible an image on my contemporary counterparts as that cast-of-thousands version did on me.
In any case, watching this latest take on the Biblical tale, one can’t help but anticipate how the director will present each storied bit of divine intervention…with a special keenness reserved for the famed parting of the Red Sea. I think even the most devout atheists would be miffed if a completely scientific explanation were proffered to explain the celebrated phenomenon. Of course you know what’s at the nub of all this. Aye, the eternal question, to be argued ad nauseam by believers and non-believers until, well, you know.
In this regard, while Scott, working from a script by a coterie of writers, likes to leave some things to interpretation, some to speculation, and others shrouded in mystery, he pretty much goes by The Book. Rather edifying, though, are the interesting conjectures regarding the folkways, mores, architecture and costumes of the era. Panoramic views of Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital, spreading out from palace to hovels, add a provocative sense of time and place.
But the central focus is on Moses, capably portrayed by Christian Bale. While depicted as duly conflicted and skeptical after learning of his true heritage, emphasis on his status as a supremely successful Egyptian general and warrior plays into the pragmatic aspects of his role as emancipator of the Hebrews. Uncomfortably sharing with Ramses (Joel Edgerton) the Pharaoh Seti’s (John Turturro) paternalistic dedication, his transition to prophet of at least three major religions is handled with due diligence.
He’s also one tough customer, which, while sure to please the thrills-and-spills crowd, reminds us just how much Sturm und Drang there is in The Bible. Big battle scenes with lots of graphic smiting splashed across vast dessert landscapes complement the military strategizing, whilst back in separate camps both sides lay the groundwork for Mr. Machiavelli’s theorems. Oh, and lest we forget about that other mysterious power that makes the world go-round, Moses, courtesy of Zipporah (Maria Valverde), also takes time to supply the scenario with a love story.
But, just in case neither love nor war does it for you, long before Universal Pictures found an audience for horror, we had the plagues. Yep, there’s all ten of ‘em here. Count ‘em, ten, including those croaking frogs, which, while not as bad as water turning to blood or having boils erupt all over you, are still pretty ugly. Think about it. Sayeth the Scripture: “And the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly…which shall go into thy house and into thy bedchamber… and into thine ovens, and into thy kneading troughs.” Into my kneading trough? Yipes! Now, that’s icky.
Technically, it couldn’t be much more convincing. Problem is, most of us aren’t sure what we want from this retelling. To complain that there is no new insight is at best naïve. It might just be enough to recognize that it is good form for each succeeding generation to iterate and study the foundations of our culture from a present-minded point of view.
That said, there is one nail that comes up from the floorboards. Most curiously, the deity, who only Moses can see and hear, is depicted as a bald, 11-year-old British boy (Isaac Andrews), and a wrathful little fellow at that. Doubtless, filmmaker Scott was trying to say something profound. Gosh knows what. But I wouldn’t mind sitting in on a dissection of this artistic eccentricity in some cozy little college town pub…fireplace ablaze, mug in hand. I have just the sweater.
Otherwise, like religion itself, how one reacts to this essentially solid, epical undertaking is vastly personal. I’m filing “Exodus: Gods and Kings” under, “Glad I saw it, but won’t watch it again when it plays the tube.” However, I am going to look into buying a cover for my kneading trough.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century Fox release directed by Ridley Scott and stars Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton and Maria Valverde. Running time: 150 minutes