Movie Reflection: Exodus

First, let me start with an explanation of why I call this a movie reflection rather than a review.  I suck at movies.  Plain and simple, I can barely remember which actor/director has done what.  I’m not a celebrity-follower, so I can’t really keep track of who is married or othewise involved with whom, or has produced which children.  When a “celebrity”  puts his/her name on a fashion brand, I often can’t tell you why it’s an advantage to the brand to be associated with that person.

I’ve tried to get better at this, for the sake of conversation with friends and relatives to whom this matters very much, but my brain just doesn’t care.  I can’t make it care, and so I’m happy to be the befuddled auntie (or whatever other relation) in this regard.

That doesn’t mean I don’t like movies or other forms of popular entertainment.  I’ll happily go to a movie, discuss it afterwards, and think about it for a long time–but don’t ask me three days later whether I thought the leading man/lady’s performance in this new film was better/worse than/derivative of a role played five years ago.  I can’t tell you.  My answer is likely to be “Oh, was s/he in that?”

I sort-of listen to what people I know have to say about movies (I’m almost never first in line to see something). Naturally, given my degrees in theology and the related professional work I’ve done, I have a lot of friends who are clergy, theologians, and biblical scholars. Many of them are more avid movie-goers than I, so it is not surprising that they have seen Exodus:  Gods and Kings weeks ago.  Nobody liked it. I saw a lot of comments on my Facebook feed that it was inaccurate, that it was “testosterone driven”, and all other reasons why it wasn’t a very good film version of the story of the liberation of the Children of Israel’s liberation from bondage in Egypt.

Granted, one of my favorite movies of all time is The Ten Commandments. The acting is fairly awful, it’s a bit too preachy and treats its subject matter a little mor reverentially than makes for a great movie.  But it’s visually and musically stunning, it was meticulously researched (read the opening credits) and if you’ve never been to a party where it’s being shown with the sound turned down and the guests saying all the lines, you’ve missed a great pleasure.  The Ten Commandments, for me, is the kind of gold standard of the Biblical epic.

(I told a college sweetheart how much I loved this movie.  One weekend, I said I couldn’t see him because I was busy writing papers.  Late on Saturday night, he turned up at my dorm room to see if I could at least take a break for a drink.  He wearing nothing but two towels–one wrapped around his waist, one draped over his head.  Doing his best Yul Brenner imitation, he banged on my door, and bellowed “So let it be written; so let it be done!”)

Despite the derision of my more biblically-correct friends, yesterday I took up the chance  to see Exodus when I was treated to a $2 ticket at a local cinema.  I love the story, and I’m willing to have a lot of liberty taken with biblical narratives.  After all, there are a lot of holes in the plot, and because there is so little description and stage-management in the Bible, there’s a lot of room for creative visuals and filling in the details of relationships and the gaps between the rescue of the infant Moses and the disclosure of his identity as (gasp) a Hebrew slave rather than a prince of Egypt.

Yes, it’s a bit male-dominated and testosterone-charged:  but very little of the Hebrew scriptures don’t fit that description, so let’s be fair. That said, the women are strong and interesting–Bithia, the daughter of Seti who rescued Moses from the Nile; Miriam, the sister of Moses (who, in this film, becomes a servant in the royal household and raises her baby brother), and Zipporah, the woman Moses marries.  They are all stronger than in the earlier film (but The Ten Commandments was 1956, and we wouldn’t have expected biblical women to be strong and interesting in that era).

Yes, it takes huge liberties with the biblical text–it would be a very dull film if it didn’t. But so did The Ten Commandments, in developing a relationship between Seti, Moses, and Rameses (we have no idea what the relationship might have been).

It’s good to do these things.  If we didn’t, or weren’t allowed, to be creative with our telling of the biblical stories, they would get old and boring really quickly–think how dull most nativity plays would be if we had to stick just to the text as written (and then, would we choose Matthew or Luke?  Usually, it’s a pretty good mashup of the two.) It brings alive the look and sound–and in the case of Exodus, almost the smell of the place and times.  Yes, really, it is that vivid.

That’s not saying that I’m totally in love with the film:  the piece I particularly disliked was portraying the voice and image of God as a singularly obnoxious child (an anachronistic link to the Isaian vision of the Peaceable Kingdom). Said child uses some odd device of stacking a small pyramid of cylindrical stones as a sign to Moses–the sign is never explored, and as the stones look as though they were retrieved from a litter box, it is a further puzzle. Moses throwing his sword into the Red Sea, and the sea subsiding as a result, seemed to be an odd and misplaced reference to the Excalibur legend, somehow an attempt to legitimize his right to lead the people to freedom.  Miriam went into the Egyptian royal household as a maid when Seti’s daughter Bithia rescued the infant Moses–how does she rejoin the Hebrew people (as she has a speaking role in the Bible itself, this does need to be reconciled somehow, and the movie does not do that). The wedding between Moses and Zipporah seems to be based on later developments than might be strictly authentic.  A conversation about “faith” (a category that would have looked quite different around the 12 century before the Christian era) between Moses and Zipporah concerning their child’s views on God where the mother indicated the boy could make up his mind when he was older, is almost certainly wrong. And nothing that was claimed to have been written in Hebrew looked very much liken any Hebrew I’ve seen.

The role of Jethro the Midianite (who becomes Moses’ father-in-law), and the whole of the Abrahamic people descended through the line of Ishmael, might have been developed more.  It’s a crucial link between the religions that emerged as Judaism and Islam.

But even the obnoxious child-god raises some interesting questions.  As the plagues proceed (and it really is good how the adviser to Rameses gives the plagues a natural, rather than miraculous, explanation), Moses laments how hard it is to see the suffering of the people with whom he grew up.  The child-god asks, “What about the people you didn’t grow up with?”–an excellent probing into compassion and responsibility to those who are “other”, and especially those who can somehow be seen as “less than” the dominant group.

The film ends with Moses approaching Jethro, with the Children of Israel behind them in their hundreds of thousands–and Moses claiming them as “my people”.  As he recoiled from association with them earlier in the movie, it is interesting to meditate on the question of when they became “his people”, and the process by which this shift in identity took place.

Apart from religious considerations, it’s really quite an enjoyable film.  It’s visually stunning (there are more stunt people and technical effects credits than there are actors, but I suppose that is becoming more the case).  It’s got great horse chases, and lots of animals–livestock count being a prime quality criterion for historical epics, especially Biblical ones. The music and costuming add to the characters and the way the story moves on. And the story does move at a fast pace (largely because of the horses).

If you’re going to be a snob about Biblical scholarship and accuracy, you won’t like Exodus: Gods and Kings. The only reason for telling people not to see the movie on these grounds is if you have a stake in the Keep The Bible Boring Society.  But if you’re up for a good movie with lots of animals, action, special effects, a bit of legend and fantasy, on a cloudy and chilly afternoon, you’re not likely to be disappointed.  And if a movie this much fun can come from the Bible, might it inspire a few people to read the book?


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