To make a great film about faith or the faith stories of any religion, the filmmakers have to approach the material with some form of conviction. It doesn’t have to be a religious conviction, per say; but it must be some kind of conviction nevertheless. One of the greatest religious films ever made, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), was directed by an Atheist, Pier Paolo Pasolini. But he was inspired to make the film after reading the Gospels during a trip to Assisi to participate in a dialogue with Catholics at the invitation of Pope John XXIII. Perhaps what drew Pasolini to the story of Jesus was that he saw in his teachings the same radical call for egalitarianism that was so personally dear to him as a Marxist. But regardless of his motivations, his film is as flawless a depiction of a biblical story as exists on celluloid.
Fast-forward to 50 years later and we have another film based on a story from the Bible being made by a director who also identifies as an Atheist. Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) tells the story of Moses and the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. This is familiar ground for Hollywood storytellers. Two adaptations entitled The Ten Commandments were done by Cecil B. DeMille alone, a man who lacked for anything BUT conviction. And while his films featured triumphant, ground-breaking production values, they both were left wanting in the storytelling department with the 1923 silent version awkwardly transitioning from biblical epic to modern day melodrama and the much-loved 1956 color version feeling more like a strained string of static tableaux vivants than an actual film.
Scott’s film demonstrates neither deficiency of DeMille’s, being both unified in its narrative and properly cinematic given the source material. And to Scott’s credit he manages to capture the width and breadth of the story without making the film’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime seem monotonous or unbearable. The performances (by the shockingly and suspiciously Caucasian actors and actresses) are serviceable, although Joel Edgerton’s turn as Ramesses II veers a little too close to unintentional parody, particularly during one early scene where Moses (Christian Bale) walks in on him caressing a giant cobra while longingly staring into the distance like he was Robert Downey, Jr. in Satan’s Alley. The overabundant use of CGI is occasionally distracting. Scott and his cinematographer John Toll seemed to try and mask the sub-par CGI backgrounds by frequently utilizing shallow depths-of-field, thereby largely blurring them out. But instead of making them seem more realistic, the end result is that the effects look bad and blurred.
But now we get to the main thrust of this review: the need for conviction. And for all of its strengths and flaws, Exodus: Gods and Kings is a film with none. As a historical epic/blockbuster, it is entirely serviceable. But as an adaptation of one of the most important stories from the Bible, it is lacking. One of the most curious aspects of the film is Scott’s insistence on providing explanations for God’s miracles that, if they are not explicitly scientifically possible, they are at the very least scientifically plausible. Moses first encounters the Burning Bush after being severely injured by a rockslide. His encounter with God? A fever dream. His subsequent visions? Schizophrenia. The parting of the Red Sea? A tsunami caused by a meteoric impact.
But my favorite is his handling of the Ten Plagues. Apparently, the Nile is turned to “blood” by the hyperactivity of the native crocodiles disturbing the river’s layers of sediment. The tainted water forces the Nile’s frogs to flee en masse. When the frogs die, the mountains of amphibian corpses lead to an explosion in the maggot, fly, and mosquito population. Which leads to pestilence, which leads to diseased livestock, and so on and so forth. Darren Aronofsky explored scientific explanations for biblical events to a lesser extent in his tragically underrated Noah (2014), particularly in one breath-taking sequence where the Seven Days of Creation are depicted as a montage of extreme time-lapses. But whereas Aronofsky’s film seemed to be interested in a reconciliation between science and religion, Scott’s film seems to be interested in removing the “religious” element completely. So we have a film where Moses isn’t a prophet, but a possibly disturbed action-adventure hero. The story of the Hebrew’s Exodus isn’t one of religious significance, but merely the backdrop for big set-pieces and battle scenes. It’s the Bible without the Bible; faith as a symptom, not as an inspiration.
Side note: if you are interested in seeing a film based on the story of Moses, check out DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt (1998). It’s a stunningly animated film that manages to perfectly capture the scale, gravitas, and drama of its biblical source material while remaining an all-ages affair fit for family viewing.