Just like Moses' task from God, the social and cultural context that surrounds Exodus: Gods and Kings shapes it in ways that these actors and filmmakers might not have wanted.
Exodus: Gods and KingsDirector: Ridley Scott
Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Golshifteh Farahani, Indira Varma, Hiam Abbass
Studio: 20th Century Fox
US date: 2014-12-12 (General release)
UK date: 2014-11-07 (General release)
“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.”
-- Ridley Scott
Watching as his High Priestess (Indira Varma) cuts open a white bird to reveal its prophetic entrails, the Egyptian pharaoh Seti (John Turturro) can hardly wait. "What did they say?" he asks, his heavily mascaraed eyes wide with worry. "They didn't say anything," she says. "They imply."
With this early scene, Exodus: Gods and Kings lays out a central conflict between certainty and belief, between reading literally and reading metaphorically. While it's an apt conflict for a movie drawing from Biblical stories, it's also a messy and irresolvable one. In this particular movie, the conflict falls by the wayside almost as soon as the High Priestess so helpfully articulates it. In 1300 BC, Pharaoh's immediate concern is the same as always, namely, how to manage the power imbalance that makes the empire go. While he usually keeps his soldiers busy with warring and land-grabbing, and his slaves busy with building monuments to his own legacy, it happens sometimes that each population grows restless.
Word of such restlessness has him wondering about entrails, as well as fretful when the High Priestess can't say exactly how his sons, the blood-related Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and the adopted Moses (Christian Bale), will come out of an upcoming battle, only that "A leader will be saved". The mystery only grows when the brothers return from the field, with neither wanting to describe the moment when Moses saved Ramses, frozen with fear. This means you know somewhat more than Pharaoh, because you do see, rather repeatedly, that Ramses is incompetent in his chariot and overly interested in eating just about everything in front of him, while Moses is a serious warrior and reluctant but obviously gifted leader. That he's not precisely sympathetic with the existential plight of slaves, he does appear to understand they're unhappy.
This much is clear when he meets with a group of slaves led by Nun (Ben Kingsley), who recognizes right away that Moses isn’t who he thinks he is. In fact, Moses is Hebrew, just like Nun and his fellows ("You were born a slave!"). Moses understandably tries to resist his impending identity crisis, but such effort is foiled by the self-serving shenanigans of Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), represented here as both a cruel slave overseer and a gay-coded lost soul (lusting after Moses, of all people). When the Viceroy exposes Moses' secret to Ramses, the two villains, both stereotypically preening, both fond of eye makeup, team up to exile the nobler brother.
It's an ugly, reductive opposition, gaining momentum throughout Exodus. Tossed into the wilderness, Moses is rescued by the tribe that will become "his people", and marries the lovely tribe member, Zipporah (María Valverde), with whom he has a lovely son, all of whom he must leave behind when God instructs him to go back and free Ramses' slaves. As Exodus: Gods and Kings has it, Moses' rebirth is something like a superhero's origin story. With Ramses' fearfully whiny dismissal of his brother, followed by repeated scenes showing his abuses of slaves who are building his pyramid, it's clear that Moses has the moral high road, even as his wife and child complain about his leaving them.
This is, of course, what reluctant heroes do, as anyone from The Searchers' Ethan Edwards to Interstellar's Joseph Cooper might attest. Moses' calling is delivered by God, at first looking like a burning bush, then like a white boy in sandals (played by 11-year-old Isaac Andrews). Moses' sometimes heated exchanges with the God-Boy -- who is simultaneously endearing and imposing, his face offering a range of judgments -- are rendered in ways that make Moses' struggle seem both literal and metaphorical, as the camera cuts to an accidental observer's perspective, and you see Moses in earnest dialogue with air. No matter that the observer might shake his head at this sight; you're disposed to believe what Moses believes, at least in the sense that has special access to the God-Boy.
This access means that Moses make hard choices beyond leaving behind his family. These include going along with some terrible plagues that the God-Boy, impatient with the slow pace of change made by Moses and the slaves he trains up as warriors (during one brief sequence, they're setting up terrorist-like bombs). The God-Boy informs Moses that his warfare is aimed at reducing the number of enemy soldiers, but a more effective form might be to reduce the food and property available to them. And so he sends bloody water, frogs and locusts, as well as dead goats and boils.
These brutal punishments only seem to reinforce Ramses' own meanness, as he insists on fighting back, on seeking vengeance just like the God-Boy. When it comes time for the God-Boy to kill boys, just like Pharaoh once did (i.e. the scourge that led to Moses' being accepted into the royal family), it's disconcerting, certainly. As Moses puts it, "Something is coming. It is out of my control." But he has precious little time to ponder it, as he's sent out again into the desert, this time leading the tribe to freedom.
Managing all these human inconsistencies and hypocrisies has long posed a problem for filmmakers. But even if Christian Bale is more visibly conflicted, even more sympathetic, than, say, Charlton Heston, the story of Moses always arrives on screens with contexts and controversies. Now, of course, social media give these frameworks expanded lives, immediately and energetically. So, the very idea of the God-Boy has generated some debate.
How to represent God for film viewers who prefer to see their metaphors is an ongoing question. But so is how to represent people. Here again the rationales are vexed by money concerns, desires to appeal to viewers and sell products. Here, though, the metaphors also have to do with history, how genetics shaped experiences and appearances, then and now. The decision to make these Egyptians white is taken in a different context than in 1923 or 1956 in a US-based industry, as the product is now delivered into a more plainly global market and multiple histories are now available.
Given the moment of Exodus' release, it's hardly surprising that the noisiest to-do over it has to do with race. Director Ridley Scott's assertion that this decision was based on money hasn't quelled the upset. This isn't surprising, given current social and political contexts, from the Sony emails about Obama to Chris Rock's recent essay on Hollywood's enduringly institutional racism to debates over activist celebrity athletes.
Social media makes all these contexts vivid and insistent. Metaphors and literal interpretations do different sorts of cultural work, shaped and sometimes compelled by advancing technologies (say, CGI-ed floods and frogs). But apart from major studios' efforts to tap Christian audience dollars, to create breathtaking images, to celebrate or hack away at gods and kings, Exodus bears its own burdens. That's not to say that it must address them or even acknowledge its contexts. It is to say that the movie is, like all art, a function of its time, and so are the are questions about it.