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MOVIE REVIEW: EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS

 

December 8, 2014

The finger of God seems to have descended on Hollywood the past few years with a resurgence in the spectacle of the Old Testament and teaching of the New, on both the big and small screens. Perhaps a commentary on the world itself, perhaps as tool to give hope in desperate times, perhaps divine intervention, but we are none the worse for wear for the experiences given us by Roma Downey's "The Bible" and 'Son of God" or Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" and now, in perhaps the grandest spectacle yet, Ridley Scott's EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS. While most of us, on hearing of the biblical exodus and the story of Moses think immediately of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 "The Ten Commandments" and the strapping handsome battle of brothers played by Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, on seeing Scott's film, one has to imagine DeMille looking down on him with great joy as EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is an epic, riveting spectacle to rival anything DeMille may have ever imagined.

Calling on the cinematographic talents of Dariusz Wolski and employing widescreen imagery and wonderfully executed 3D technology (but for an initial battle sequence with the Hittites which comes across as very sloppily filmed with misplaced use of 3D), EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS jumps head first into the thick of the Old Testament with Moses and Ramses as adults. Within moments, we see the rivalry of the two "brothers", thanks to preferential treatment by an aging Pharaoh Seti of his adopted son Moses over his own son Ramses. (And yes, through expository dialogue, we do get to hear the story of the boy floating in the basket down the Nile, rescued by Pharaoh's sister Bithiah, raised as her own and under the watchful eye of a young servant girl, Miriam, who was in reality Moses Hebrew sister.) Trying to build trust and allegiance between the brothers, Pharaoh sends them into a battle with the Hittites where it becomes clear that not only is Moses the better warrior, but better general and leader while Ramses displays more effeminate cowardly qualities.

Assigned more royal duties clearly designed to distinguish one brother from the other and build the foundation for Seti's choice for his successor, Moses takes the laboring oar over Ramses during a trip to one of the Pharaoh's strongholds. It is on this trip, facts come to light about Moses' true birthright. He is Hebrew, something which he vehemently denies. With the allegations believed to be unknown to all but a select few, soon after Pharaoh's passing, the information is made known to Ramses who believing it true - and wanting to eliminate his competition - exiles Moses from the kingdom, banishing him to the desert.

Wandering and lost in the desert, Moses eventually takes refuge in a remote village of shepherds. Finding peace and love, he marries and has a son, but on one fateful night in pursuit of a lost sheep during a thunderous storm, he meets God. A burning bush and God appearing in the form of a child; a child who is angry and vengeful at Ramses for enslaving His people.

And so begins Moses' attempts to free the Hebrews from the tortures of Ramses. But whereas we may expect to see the more fanciful images of Moses and his staff turning the Nile to blood or turning into snakes or green smoke passing through the streets killing first born children, in stunning visual sequences we see each of the 10 plagues set forth in the Bible take shape, and not at the hand or staff of Moses, but rather at the hand of God. The plagues are meant as much to show Moses as it is to show Ramses, God's power and strength; no mere man can inflict this kind of harm and pestilence. And in an interesting twist, Scott and his team of writers at this juncture infuse scientific explanation of the plagues thanks to well constructed dialogue of Ramses' advisors. Scientific explanation of biblical events, and particularly the story of Exodus, started to come to prominence in the late 60s, causing great divisiveness between scientists and theologians. Scott's decision to tackle the debate head-on here is actually a superb balance between religion and science, allowing understanding for both schools of thought; particularly when he takes literary license and brings in a cadre of over-sized crocodiles who ravage fish and humans in the Nile turning it to red. Interesting addition to both science and theology. Where Scott does excel, however, is with the boils, locusts, frogs and above all, the parting of the Red Sea.

Next to the burning bush, probably the most well known adventure of Moses and the Exodus is his parting of the Red Sea. And like DeMille before him, Ridley Scott doesn't disappoint. With Moses and his people at the edge of the sea with the mountain and Ramses in hot pursuit, in what is now the more accepted scientific explanation for the parting of the Red Sea, the waters recede as a precursor to a massive tidal wave. More stunning than that in "The Ten Commandments", the parting of the Red Sea is one of the most thrilling and spectacular images ever on screen.

As the Israelites make it across the parted sea and Pharaoh Ramses' soldiers drown, Moses and Ramses have their final confrontation as the waters pour over them. Although somewhat lackluster after the spectacular effect just witnessed, both survive and Moses leads his people further on their journey into Canaan, stopping along with way to use a rock and chisel to hammer out the Ten Commandments as dictated by our child-God.

Christian Bale gives Charlton Heston a run for the money with his portrayal of Moses. Strong and confident yet with a thoughtful kindness we haven't seen in any prior portrayals of Moses until now, Bale clearly embraces the gravitas and importance of Moses within the annals of human history - be it theological or historical. Whereas Heston and others have played Moses with a strong masculine heartthrob bent, we get none of that here, and it's welcome and refreshing. (But let's face it, a touch of Anne Bancroft wouldn't be unwelcome.) Bale brings an eloquent stoicism to Moses while perfectly evoking the internal emotional conflict of Moses' destiny. Although some of the dialogue feels jumbled, primarily in battle sequences and due to more to sound mix than Bale's delivery, it is the presence and commanding essence he brings to Moses that makes Bale a standout in the role.

I am still struggling, however, with Joel Edgerton as Ramses. Never have I ever thought of Ramses of foppish - until now. Edgerton's got muscles, but the constitution of a mouse. And his pinky raising popping of grapes just doesn't scream this strong iconic historical figure. Where Edgerton does pick up some speed, however, is in capturing the mentality of Ramses and the progression of his egomaniacal decline into believing himself to be a god. Similarly, Jon Turturro as Pharaoh Seti. Although a solid performance, the heavily eye-lined Turturro doesn't feel comfortable in the role or the period.

As comes as no surprise, however, is the excellence of Ben Kingsley. As Nun, Hebrew scholar and religious teacher to the slaves, Kingsley is every bit the commanding, regal, confident man to inspire his people and give them hope. Interesting is that Kingsley has previously played Moses, as a well as a Pharaoh or two. He could have easily just as easily been cast here as Seti. Wasted is the talent of Sigourney Weaver who has extremely minimal screen time as Ramses' mother Tuya. Hilarious is Ben Mendelsohn who, as the Viceroy Hegep ho exposes Moses' heritage, gives us that touch of camp, humor and lust....albeit it for Moses and Ramses.

Interesting is the casting of Aaron Paul as Joshua. While we have come to expect more activity and involvement in the exodus itself from Joshua thanks to not only biblical text but John Derek's earlier stone-cutter physique and command, and knowing that Paul can certainly bring that to the role, here, Joshua is quiet, observant. It's a surprising characterization for a man so important in the story of Moses. Paul is, however, emotionally raw and visceral in early scenes of Joshua where he is being beaten and whipped while maintaining tacit strength and stoicism.

Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian and based on the Bible, while the events are set forth succinctly enough to satisfy the most religious moviegoer, and the story construct more grounded and realistic than that of DeMille's "once upon a time" timeline, the actual dialogue never quite feels right. There is an incongruous nature it to that doesn't feel correct for either the biblical era, present day, or anything in between. Some of the text is as if pulled from Exodus itself while other feels stilted with a 21st century skew. What will undoubtedly prove to be questionable or unsettling for many is depicting God as a willful, angry commanding, child. However, any biblical scholar or layman should see the metaphor and allegory of the choice in this depiction given the biblical teachings and passages about children, truth, honesty. Also notable are plenty of visual and expository allegorical reference with sheep.

As mentioned, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski delivers powerful and empowering imagery thanks to widescreen lensing and some telling moments of lighting desaturation. If for no other reason, the visual spectacle is reason enough to see EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS. Wolski's imagery is also fueled by the production design of Arthur Max which is beyond impressive. Having seen some of the battle armor costuming worn by Bale and Edgerton, kudos to costume designer Janty Yates. The texture and detail is meticulous, particularly in Bale's armor which has a lead or iron patina to each individual "feather". Magnificent.

A spectacle of biblical proportion. EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS is a must see whether you believe or not.

Directed by Ridley Scott

Written by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian

Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn

 

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