Language: English | Running Time: 150 Minutes | Director: Ridley Scott
Our hero, Moses(Christian Bale) is told by a petulant, child God that he is one of the people who doesn’t agree with everything He has to say and then asks him to drop the hammer he’s holding if he disagrees with the need for laws for the people he has liberated. Moses continues chalking away stone and the child God approves. With any other filmmaker, I wouldn’t have been as lost as I was after watching this exchange. But this is Ridley Scott‘s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and so I am perplexed that the exchange was so ordinary, so without any action to assuage importance. Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom Of Heaven” is a movie which dealt with religion and the Crusades in particular. It had an ordinary hero with an extraordinary tale but every scene in the movie had an importance not just in words but the way a scene filled the screen. Exodus : Gods and Kings has further convinced me that Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Kingdom Of Heaven is one rare movie.
Moses and Ramesses (Joel Edgerton) grow up like brothers. The former is a more natural leader but like Seti (John Turturo) observes, he can never be the king for he is not his blood. The latter craves power but there’s little about him that can be termed the qualities of a leader. While Moses follows Ramesses around dutifully without any sight of envy or greed, Ramesses coils with these emotions and it is easy to see the poison brewing. The difference in personalities is the perfect material to allow a psychological exposition of close yet different brothers but Scott and his team of writers brush nothing more than the surface. There is no detailing to this jealousy or the actions that the men take to understand the need or fears that each other have. When first Moses and later Ramesses find the nature of Moses’ parentage, Moses is exiled and Ramesses cements himself as Ramesses The Great. In between this establishment of jealousy and start of exile, Ridley Scott has a war scene to impress us. He does, like he usually delivers with a lot of grandeur, delightful costumes and the clanking of steel. This is the area where he has always excelled but there was also a time when he managed to stick the action and the characters together, in cohesion for a wonderful perceptual film.
Exodus : Gods and Kings takes a dive from its characters. It is mostly focused on telling the events that lead to the creation of the Ten Commandments, in a very linear and Old Testament narrative. After Moses is exiled, we learn about the family he starts and the vision of God that he encounters; an encounter that takes him back to Egypt. From an awakening of the psyche at the point of his exile, he enters into a state of spiritual birth within minutes. It is difficult to take this reversal of a man who keeps talking about self-belief, personal choice and inner reflection accepting God after an illusion and contact with a child standing ahead of a burning plant. The moment of truth and reflection doesn’t exhilarate or create a sense of wonder. It doesn’t have the awe inspiring quality that Scott’s Blade Runner had the first time we learn about the “replicants” in “Blade Runner”. It is a rush from one point to another.
“Prince Of Egypt”, the animation film, doesn’t focus deeply on the spiritual awakening but it is a beautiful depiction of the psychological and emotional differences between two siblings, however unrelated they may be by blood. It is beautiful because it is a film that explores possibilities and understands the nature of humans. It doesn’t want to be anything more than a true tale of the man who delivers Israel to the children of God. It has ideas that we can take back and reflect upon or simply just enjoy, as good cinema should intend. Scott’s narrative doesn’t take us anywhere near the psyche of Moses, not when he learns about his ancestry, first the denial, the middle journey of discovery later the acceptance.
The middle portion of film focuses on the conversations between Moses and God, his stature as leader of the Hebrew slaves and the Ten Plagues. The Ten Plagues are more montages from “The Top 10 Videos of the year” or “Top 10 Bloopers Of The Year” where we sit through the countdown with minimal narrative cognisance and no connecting thread. The only good part about the whole thing is the representation of God as a petulant, unwelcome child. If Scott’s film had more of this strength and adventure to overcome the linear episode driven storytelling, Exodus : Gods and Kings would have been not only a different film but also an epic. I say epic because everything else about it comes with that attitude.
It has the Hollywood crassness to cast white people as Middle Eastern characters and bronze them to effect. It is racist and the internet has certainly had it’s say about the same. It also has some of the best costumes in movies all year. The design and grandeur is breathtaking and the biggest positive from the old fashioned studio film and story telling that Ridley Scott has employed here. The starcast is top notch, even if people like Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn are entirely wasted.
Alberto Igelesias‘ score and Dariusz Wolski‘s cinematography create a vast world of Egyptian wonderland and a marooning in the vastness of the desert. There are times when they also play a huge part in some of the more ludicrous envisioning of the parting of the Red Sea. Moses and Ramesses wait at the center of the seabed, waiting for the water to rise, staring into each other’s eyes and finally charge when the water is about to consume everything in its path. The Scott of Kingdom Of Heaven would have made Moses seem more Godly, Ramesses human and a mere king. He would have made the water falling seem like a baptism. That is what Scott is capable of. In one of the most important set pieces where Scott can exhibit is command over the visual medium, they falter. But the scene prior to this is extremely beautiful and portentous. They go through these cusps of extreme wonder and unintentionally hilarious montages that it seems like Kingdom Of Heaven and Blade Runner are part of an illustrious past that we’ll only witness in patches with the filmmaking from the painstaking “The Counselor” and “Robin Hood” becoming more apparent in his current films.
Not everything about Exodus : Gods and Kings is bad. There is a scene where Moses is about to make love to his wife, Zipporah (Maria Valeverde) and she tells him to “proceed” only after she hears how much he loves her and how he’ll never abandon her. There’s a need to be permitted, a need that somehow many don’t seem to recognise today. Maybe, I am reading too much into this little act, even the “proceed” is hilarious, but the need to be granted permission makes you realise how much of a queen she is in the eyes of Moses. A mere shepherd from a onetime General, the Prince of Egypt asking for permission is a moment of merry tenderness which is affecting. These are moments too little in the film.
Moses explains that “Israelite” means “to wrestle with God” but when God appears in front of him and shows him His petulant side, there’s little wrestling that Moses does with his newly acquired faith. As easily as he accepted God, as resigned he is with His childish commands. Neither does Moses really fight the fact that he leaves his family behind to fulfil the will of God. One night he is making love to his wife, the next he has a kid with whom he throwing stones and the next he is bidding them goodbye. All this in a passage of 10 minutes that makes you wonder if there is even a need to have this emotional state thrown in unless there was going to be the kind of intellectual and emotional wrestling that would have elevated the film. Let us not make any mistake; this should have been a story about Moses and his journey to becoming the lawgiver.
My problem with Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” best explains the predicament I face with Exodus : Gods and Kings though the former is a better film. Both films are more concerned about detailing the episodes of a man’s life than giving us the man himself, For episodes, a good history book or a Wikipedia entry suffices but for the man, we need drama, an actor bringing him to life and the director weaving a tale that fits both the elements together. If it is someone with the ability of Ridley Scott we can also expect a production design that is breathtaking. Here, we have the production design but not the drama or the man. I won’t blame Christian Bale for not getting us the man. He is somber and stoic, gruff and effective. He also shares a good chemistry with Joel Edgerton who is wasted. The absence of a script that makes the tale of Moses more exotic and cinematic is the primary reason for this abject portrayal of Moses.
I see the scene where Ramesses and Moses meet as the slaves are freed and I keep looking for an emotion and important cue to show the significance of this act but the moment floats by, impressionable only in murals. At the same time, my mind wanders to this stunning scene where Balian meets Saladin to parley after defending Jerusalem for 3 days. It is gobsmackingly brilliant. It is cinematic gold. I wish I could feel so much for Exodus : Gods and Kings. I wish it wasn’t as erratic and ungainly as it turned out to be, I wish there was atleast 2 hours more of the visual grandeur but this time with a story that explored Moses’ psychological wars more deeply and more interestingly. If only Ridley Scott turned up long before the credits rolled up and read “For my brother, Tony Scott.”