Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 21, 2014 5:06 pm 
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Moments of grandeur, but no religion

Ridley Scott's title, Exodus: Gods and Kings defines his movie as a generic costume epic more than a key chapter of the Old Testament. Scott adheres to the traditional, which is to say patently absurd, style of ancient-time blockbusters, the glitzy outfits,grandiose open-air temple-dwellings with famous western, Caucasian actors strutting around in them speaking modern English in fake accents. This is a Biblical epic by an avowed non-believer. There is an intense tale of brothers here, though, and there may be some deep emotional resonance. Ridley lost his filmmaker brother Tony this year in tragic circumstances, and the film is dedicated to his memory. The relation of Ridley Scott and his committee of writers to the Book of Exodus (and the Torah) is hard to pin down. In fact in the main role of Moses, the foundling raised as an Egyptian prince who reluctantly embraces his true identity and leads the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt through the desert to the promised land, it constantly seems as though Christian Bale, a veteran of epics and Ridley Scott regular, is redefining the tenor of the tale and the role of Moses in each successive scene he's in. Meanwhile Soctt adopts a "realistic" approach to legendary events that sometimes seems fresh and sometimes unsatisfying or inexplicable.

What everyone can "enjoy," if that is the word, are the ten Plagues visited upon the Egyptians, which lead Ramses (Joel Edgerton) to "let" Moses' "people go" (that phrase though, is never used). Plagues -- rivers running with blood, here caused by rapacious Nilotic crocodiles, followed in somehow perfectly logical and swift order by invasions of frogs, lice, flies, diseased livestock, boils, hail and fire, locusts, and then The Horror -- the Passover (not named) time of Darkness that here leads directly to the death of the firstborn. The Horror really comes across as terrible, and when Ramses cries uncle, it's wholly understandable and pathetic.

Some may balk at the movie's revolutionary device of having Moses talk to God by way of a feisty, stern little boy with a proper British accent (the astonishing Isaac Andrews). I don't. It's both authentically spooky and the only real fun thing in this often dull, ponderous, and humorless movie. Exodus might have been more interesting if it had more discernible characters, even invented ones, besides the handful of main figures. The lack of those makes the many crowd scenes really feel like everybody but Ben Kingsley, Christian Bale, and Joel Edgerton is just digital backdrop. (The early battle scene with the Hittites where Bale saves Edgerton, fulfilling a prophesy, is of the kind where the physical action is unsatisfying, because it's all blurred. That's not realism, it's incoherence.)

Ben Mendelsohn is momentarily entertaining as the self-indulgent Viceroy Hegep. John Turturro is absurd as Seti, Ramses' father and Moses' adopted father, though this is partly camerawork: he looks ridiculous in pharaonic costume, but then they all do, and shot from a better angle, he looks better, and anyway, he's soon going to die. It's sadder that Sigourney Weaver as Tuya, Seti's wife, gets nothing at all to do; Ben Kingsley's role is generic and brief as a Hebrew elder who clues Moses in on who he is. "That's not even a good story," is his amusing response. Is this one?

Most of the exterior action was reportedly shot in Spain, where Lawrence of Arabia was also partly filmed. There isn't much sense of location. So it may come as no surprise that when Moses is banished from Egypt and says he's heading east, he winds up among Moroccan Berber shepherds. At least that's how his wife Zipporah, played by the pretty María Valverde, comes across), given the trappings of the scenes. And there we get the first and almost the last pretty girl, and a little bit of smooching and romance.

Somehow, realism respects neither legend nor reality. You may say Cecil B. DeMille's parting of the Red Sea was chintzy and obviously fake. But those waters really parted. It satisfied one's imagination of what the Bible tells. Ridley Scott merely settles for an exceptionally low tide (and the poor Israelites have to struggle with some rough water carrying all their gear), followed by an extraordinary CGI storm (with dramatically beautiful clouds) and tsunami-strength waves to wipe out the pursuing Egyptians.

Joel Edgerton, as Ramses, is a compelling actor, but he seems like a biker. Why do I feel that a Pharoah's son. whether he wore those gilded wife-beaters or not, wouldn't have worked out at the gym? Ridley Scott's Exodus oscillates between realistic and absurd, numbingly dull and arrestingly odd. It has some good moments but overall it's a very mixed bag. It feels too long -- but not long enough to tell a Greatest Story.

Exodus: Gods and Kings, 150 mins., opens all over the world on different days in different countries in December 2014 and January 2015. It opened in the US 11 December, France the 24th and the UK the 26th.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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