In writing about a biblical movie, one should begin by acknowledging the difficulty of the moviemaker’s task. Let us assume that the makers of the Exodus: Gods and Kings were perplexed about how to tell a God-centered story in a skeptical age and come across as neither credulous nor impious. This perplexity might have been dispelled with a little Talmud study. As we are taught in the tractate of Yoma, “Halves are not granted in heaven.” When it comes to telling the tale, believe it or disbelieve it; uninspired revisionism pleases no one.
The movie’s director, Ridley Scott, has chosen to tell the story of the Exodus by positing a struggle in the palace between the young Pharaoh (Joel Edgerton) and Moses (Christian Bale), who was raised in the Pharaoh’s palace. Moses saves his pseudo-brother’s’ life early in the movie in the battle of Kadesh (a famous battle in Egyptian history although there is no indication in or out of the bible that Moses or Israelites were involved). This heroism leaves an uneasy taste in both men’s mouths, and it devolves into a full rivalry.
There are small side dramas, including a startlingly egalitarian wedding ceremony in which Moses takes Zipporah as his wife. After Moses discovers he is Jewish and has a mission, the newlyweds have an old-timey “don’t go to the battle/why are you always leaving” pas de deux familiar from wartime melodramas. But the narrative’s focus is the journey of Moses, who is exiled to Midian because of Pharaoh’s antagonism and his own unbendable sense of virtue. In Midian, a small group of Jews informs him of his origins, followed by a vision of the divine and his return to wreak, albeit reluctantly, the plagues on the Egyptians. All of this is capped by a well-known journey through the Sea of Reeds.
The lineaments of the story are so well known that Scott’s elaborations have to make sense: A movie is a kind of midrash, and the midrash works if it is faithful to a deeply held worldview that illuminates the story. The idea that Pharaoh and Moses grew up as rivals, nowhere hinted at in the Bible itself, is reasonable. It gives dramatic shape to the narrative. Moses’s discovery of his Judaism through a small and secret cave-cabal of Jews who tell him the truth is a serviceable fiction, and planting a spy among the group to warn the Egyptians back home of Moses’s impending treachery moves the story along.
But the central innovation of the movie—the depiction of Moses hearing God’s voice through a vision or hallucination of a petulant and vaguely creepy child—is flat out bizarre. Repellent, really.
How to depict God is obviously a crucial decision, and here Scott’s 21st-century ambivalence—is there a God or not?—is the key to understanding Moses’s (presumed) hallucination. He is pasturing sheep when a rockslide leads to his being struck on the head by a boulder. Later in the Torah, Moses will be punished by not entering the land of Israel for having hit a rock when God instructed him to speak to the rock instead. The movie unwittingly gives us a piquant explanation—a rock hit Moses first.
Still, once he has been struck, Moses has the crucial vision—he sees the burning bush and an 11-year-old kid. Rather than the boy’s words actually being the command of God, the movie is content to assure us that whatever the source, this is the command that Moses follows. The choice is inexplicable on multiple levels. Surely we aren’t intended to believe that it is actually God whom Moses sees as a slightly maniacal middle-schooler? Yet if it is not God, then one has to say nature itself is astonishingly helpful to Israel, with a cascade of perfectly timed catastrophes. The movie makes no sense if Israel is not genuinely aided by the divine; how else to explain the death of all the Egyptian firstborns and the survival of all the Hebrew firstborns on the Passover?
Scott has a great deal invested in proving the disproportionate cruelty of the plagues. But if God doesn’t exist, why expend so much effort in showing that his plagues are, well, inhuman? Finally, the great moment in the Torah when Moses asks, “Whom shall I say sent me?”—as he seeks to understand the deity who commands him—is absent. Which is just as well, since the movie demonstrates it has no understanding of the depth of the question or the possible grandeur of the answer.
Getting the tenor of biblical dialogue in a modern movie is difficult. Still, there are some inadvertently comic notes struck here in the screenplay by Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, and Steve Zaillian. When Moses issues his immortal request to “let my people go,” Pharaoh’s response is: “From an economic standpoint, what you suggest is problematic to say the least.” I almost expected him to waggle his cigar as he spoke.
The movie’s sympathies are more with the Egyptians than with the Israelites, but that preference doesn’t rise to the level of conviction: It’s just that plagues prove dramatic cinematically while the centuries of slavery come across as fairly dull. To show the horrors of slavery takes nuance, character development—in other words, all the things you don’t need to show locusts darkening the sky. Far from some startling revisionism, elevating the plagues into the main attraction is a tribute to the ease with which techno-dazzle can overwhelm filmmaking.
So we have a movie with a dramatic story that is bent and misshaped by confusion about the central character (God), the moral balance (Israel vs. Egypt), and the abiding sense that the movie was made not because something needed to be said, but because there was a computer-graphics-plague-software package that was lying unused on the shelves at Fox.
Yes, the actors are almost all white (how should they look? think Sadat), and the accents belong on the playing fields of Eton. Also, for the hundredth time, Israelites did not build the pyramids. But the deeper problem with this movie is that it lacks a convincing vision. There is no sense that Exodus: Gods and Kings arises from the passion of the filmmaker to reimagine one of the formative stories of our culture. One way or another, to tell the story of the Bible, you gotta have a little faith.