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Christian Bale plays Moses in new movie "Exodus" about the Hebrew's captivity and flight from Egypt
Christian Bale plays Moses in new movie "Exodus" about the Hebrew's captivity and flight from Egypt

REVIEW: Exodus: Gods and Kings

As in the 1950s “The Ten Commandments,” the new movie “Exodus, Gods and Kings” is a blockbuster of Biblical proportions. Read the Biblical account for the true story.

By Emily Belz

(WNS)–Exodus: Gods and Kings director Ridley Scott introduced his movie at its New York premiere by saying it was “the biggest movie I have made.” “Big” is the best description of the film—minimal theology, but big, big visuals.

Christians are going to find various faults and textual departures with Scott’s interpretation of Exodus, just as they did with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. For one, there’s the tiniest hint that the plagues could have natural causes. But is that any denial of God’s power? “The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night,” says Exodus 14:21.

My chief textual complaint is that the film treats the Passover, the heart of the story, as an aside, a random religious act comparable to the pagan practices of the Egyptians. Fortunately, the Exodus screenwriters used almost no dialogue from the primary text, a tacit recognition that this is a significant adaptation.

Scott, like Aronofsky, does not profess faith, and he handles the faith elements gingerly. The first half of the film, before Moses (Christian Bale) encounters God in the burning bush, is more confident storytelling. [story continues below video]

Joel Edgerton as Pharaoh and Golshifteh Farahani as his wife. But the atheist director works hard to mold a mysterious narrative into something a modern mind can understand. He partly succeeds. The film, incredibly violent for its PG-13 rating, puts a magnifying glass on the cruelty of Pharaoh (Joel Edgerton) to the Hebrews, so the audience understands why God would send such horrific plagues.

“I’m going from what is the basis of reality, not fantasy,” Scott told me. “This is not Harry Potter.”

Bale said while modern scholars debate the historicity of the Exodus account, he and the others involved approached it as a real, historical event. He delivers a solid performance as a Moses who goes from respected Egyptian general to a wild-eyed religious leader. Mentioning the veil Moses had to wear later in his life to shield people from God’s glory reflecting on his face, Bale said Moses has to come across a little mad from his divine encounters: “Otherwise it trivializes a direct communication with God.”

Have you read Exodus lately? It is a strange story, filled with terrifying imagery and difficult theology, like the idea that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. In the film, Pharaoh stands in agony before Moses with his dead son in his arms, asking how he could worship a God like this. Scott, even for ham-handed moments, gets at some of the strangeness of the biblical account, the otherness of God.

The depiction of God—or the young boy I incorrectly thought was God—is an unsettling aspect of the film. Only one line late in the film lets you know that the young boy is a messenger of God and not God Himself. Scott said the popular concept of an angel, wings and all, was too fantastical, so he wanted to use a regular boy to be God’s messenger to Moses.

“How would you have represented God?” Bale responded when I asked about the child. “If you’re put in Ridley’s shoes, it’s an immensely difficult thing. What on earth do you do with that?”

Artistically ambitious films should do more than pipe in a deep voice from heaven. We know that in the Old Testament God’s appearances, or those of other heavenly beings, were scary. The child, Malak (“messenger of God”), has an M. Night Shyamalan creepiness. So kudos for creativity, even if Malak doesn’t quite pull it off.

Overall the visual effects are stunning. Crocodiles fight to the death in the Nile, lines of chariots rush around the edges of a mountain, a heap of frogs tumble off Pharaoh’s bed. The 3-D is superb. Sometimes movies feel as if they have 3-D just to have 3-D. Here it enhances the shots without being obtrusive. If you can merely think of Exodus as a blockbuster, you’ll enjoy it. Read the book for the deeper, bigger story.