Ridley Scott’s film dramatization of the biblical Book of Exodus is ultimately a conventional Hollywood spectacle. Certainly there is plenty of material for spectacle in the Book of Exodus, and director Ridley Scott does a decent job of making the plagues and the splitting of the sea seem real. But the trouble with cinematic spectacle, it seems to me, is that it tends to be superficial, to excite or entertain the viewer without drawing him in deeply. And the Book of Exodus is anything but a superficial tale.
The Hebrew Bible’s typical narrative style is sparse, leaving much to be inferred. Even the ancient rabbinical sages engaged in commentary and embellishment, called midrash. So Exodus: Gods and Kings provides additional background by depicting the relationship of Moses (Christian Bale) to the pharaoh, whose daughter saved his life as a baby, and with that pharaoh’s successor (Joel Edgerton), from whom he eventually demands freedom for the Hebrews.
The film also spends time depicting Moses’ domestic situation after he marries. It portrays Moses and Zipporah (Maria Valverde) as a loving couple, but tension arises when Moses separates from his family, heading off to Egypt at the behest of the God of Israel. In this the film departs from the biblical text, for Moses in fact took his wife and children with him to Egypt.
In itself this change might be a legitimate exercise of poetic license in order to add even more drama and round out Moses’ character, but it also means that the film never presents one of the most cryptic events in the book (chapter 4, verses 24-26), wherein Zipporah saves the life of Moses from the God of Israel by circumcising her son. Another mysterious plot element that the film ignores is the God of Israel’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. In addition, the very important incident of the golden calf is depicted but fleetingly, and virtually nothing is made of it.
The strange scene of the burning bush is not ignored, but the angel (Isaac Andrews) looks about ten to twelve years old. He reappears throughout the film, and I must admit he avoids being ludicrous or cheesy. Still, this somewhat bold stroke fails to convey the awesome, the numinous, or even much mystery.
Another change in the story is that Moses, when he returns, trains the Hebrews to engage in guerilla war to convince Pharaoh to let them return to Canaan. This, of course, does not succeed, but it lets us see that Moses, accepting this failure, has humility.
There is one change, though, that no amount of poetic license can excuse. When Moses first confronts Pharaoh upon his return to Egypt, he demands that the Hebrews be treated like Egyptians and paid for their work or else be allowed to leave. Moses thus becomes, risibly, more like a representative of the ancient Egyptian branch of the American Civil Liberties Union than a thundering prophet of the God of Israel.
This is not a terrible film; as I say. It is a not badly done spectacle. I have respect for the director Ridley Scott, whose Blade Runner was not only an excellent adaptation of a good Philip K. Dick novella but even an improvement upon it.
But this film does not capture much of the spirit, depth, and mystery of the Book of Exodus, in my opinion. I do not think that it is an easy thing to do justice to the book on film, but neither do I think it impossible. At the very least, it seems to me, it requires a director and screenwriters who are deeply engaged with the relevant sections of the Hebrew Bible. This film is a mediocrity.