Of all the obscure film genres to make a comeback in recent years, who among us expected the resurgence of the Biblical epic?
Thanks to Aronofosky’s triumphantly bats**t crazy Noah, it seems we can now expect a slew of Old Testament supermen to be battling it out with the comic book contingent for control of our screens. But what of the most recent, Exodus: Gods and Kings?
Exodus marks Ridley Scott’s return to the Demille mode of filmmaking with a tale every bit as iconic as the Great Flood. Taking the role that Charlton Heston once thundered his way through is a notably low-key Christian Bale: his Moses is not some strident religious demagogue but a pragmatic General who only slowly comes to appreciate the nature of faith. It’s also a perfect fit for the film as a whole.
Quickly moving away from the towering columns of Memphis to the sweeping arid scrub of the Egyptian desert, the film bears more resemblance to Lawrence of Arabia than Gladiator, though the supporting cast – John Turturro as the frail, kindly Seti I, Sigourney Weaver as the vinegar-faced Queen Tuya, Ben Mendelsohn’s camply villainous viceroy – seem to have had their roles largely cut to fit the 154 minute run-time.
Despite this – and the incongruous miscasting of Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul as the silently stoic Joshua – Exodus succeeds on the strength of its epic narrative. While Scott’s previous works have been given to sprawl, this is deceptively lean, disciplined storytelling. Because of this the spectacular seven plagues – monstrous alligators, swarming flies – are all the more impressive in that they do not feel egregious.
While Moses takes a backseat to the CGI extravaganza in the second act, his chaste relationship with his wife Zipporah (María Valverde) feels genuine but serves to highlight the disconnect you feel from those who are supposed to be “his” people. Even an actor the caliber of Sir Ben Kingsley can do little to foster this connection; even with blackened skies and whips cracking can’t animate the sense of injustice.
Joel Edgerton’s Ramses II, meanwhile – who stands in opposition to Bale’s Moses – is not a mad God King a la Joaquin Phoenix but a sumptuous, brutal man unprepared for the wrath of God. His howl he gives as a shadow passes over his kingdom and the life of his firstborn flickers out like a candle is truly elemental. Exodus puts his arrogance head-to-head, sometimes literally, with Moses’ growing humility.
Likely a shoe-in for several of the technical categories, possibly Darius Wosicz’s rich, textured cinematography, Exodus: Gods and Monsters certainly won’t be winning any awards from racial equality groups. We may have come along way in storytelling and effects, but ethnically the film isn’t so far away from DeMille’s own Ten Commandments more than sixty years ago.
For a supposed Biblical epic, Exodus isn’t truly about the Christian God – though he does appear, in the form of a petulant child – but about how we as individuals deal with the inexplicable. We can, like Moses, give ourselves over to it, or, like Ramses, seek to resist. As a humanist fable, however – a story of men, women, and children struggling in the face of adversity – whether or not it wins you over, it resonates.