Sunday, October 4, 2015


The Ten Commandments is corny. Everybody knows that. Cecil B. DeMille cheapened the Bible story with melodrama and bad dialogue, but what else could he do? It fell to Ridley Scott, who had already tried to outdo DeMille in Kingdom of Heaven, and a team of writers, to show how the Exodus story could be dramatized -- for there seems to be agreement that the Old Testament narrative can't stand on film on its own -- without old-timey melodrama and corniness. But nearly every step Exodus takes to differentiate itself proves the old-timer's wisdom. C.B. knew your main story was the showdown between Moses and Pharaoh (popularly understood to be Rameses II). Scott agrees, and both directors understood that the conflict can't come down to the two men making speeches at each other. DeMille juices up the conflict by making the antagonists rivals for the same woman. That, presumably, was an element deemed too corny for our time, so instead Scott's writers give us a failed bromance, more like Ben-Hur and Messala than Moses and Pharaoh. Their bro-dom falls apart when Moses (Christian Bale) saves the life of Rameses (Joel Edgerton) during a battle with the Hittites, in apparent fulfillment of a prophecy that makes Moses a potential nemesis for the future Pharaoh. Moses, despite being brought up as a prince of Egypt, is a skeptic toward omens and prophecies, but while Rameses claims to share that skepticism he can't help feelings suspicious. His suspicions magnify when Moses goes on an inspection tour of the city being built with Hebrew slave labor. The prince and general is just as dismissive toward the Hebrew god, but the Hebrew elders (led by Ben Kingsley) have a surprise for him. Apparently the elders have known all along that Moses is one of their own, saved from a proscribed massacre of Hebrew firstborn by his older sister. You might not have realized that Sister Miriam herself was taken into Bythia's household, where she must keep her religion a secret. Anyway, Moses claims not to believe the elders' story, but he promptly begins acting stupid. Having traveled to their quarters incognito, he's accosted by two Egyptian guards who mistake him for a slave. The smart play would have been for our hero to reveal himself as Prince Moses and have the guards back off. Instead, since the Bible says he has to kill an Egyptian, he kills the two guards as two bums watch. They inform the governor, who resents the pressure Moses has put on him and reports the incident to Rameses, who has just become Pharaoh after the death of his father Seti (John Turturro). Rameses puts Miriam to an ordeal to get the truth out of her, while she lies at the risk of losing her arm. Now here Moses might want to intervene because he's a compassionate, progressive guy. He could stop Rameses with a protest that his methods are barbaric, but instead he stops the ordeal by confessing a truth that we weren't sure he even believed. Rameses now has no choice but to exile Moses to the desert, though he does leave his old friend with means to defend himself from assassins sent by the wicked queen mother (Sigourney Weaver).

The story proceeds as usual with Moses starting a family in the land of Midian until his curiosity sends him up the holy mountain. Scott has the mountain resist his advance with a mudslide, after which Moses meets his hotheaded young sidekick, God. The filmmakers try to fudge whether this willful brat (Isaac Andrews) is God himself or just some messenger, but he plays the role God usually takes in the story. Exodus imagines the deity rather like the kid in the Twilight Zone episode, aching for an opportunity to put the whole land of Egypt in the cornfield. Understandably, Moses grows increasingly annoyed with this bloodthirsty little rascal, and we're to understand that his attitude is appropriate as a representative of a people whose name means to wrestle with God.  It really seems appropriate to an age when it isn't cool to prostrate oneself to the great I Am, much less take your sandals off in his ground-sanctifying presence. And Moses above all must remain cool, even if his methods prove inappropriate for the divine purpose. Much as Ben-Hur in the novel and the original silent film organizes an armed uprising to liberate the captive Jesus, so Moses initially sets out to liberate the Hebrews through guerrilla warfare. His first raid looks like quite a success, but Rameses responds with Nazi-style reprisals, after we've seen a Shoah-esque burning of the daily slave casualties, ordering one family hanged daily until the enemy surrenders, while the Pharaoh harangues his subjects from a podium (as played by the pudgy, bald Edgerton) like an ancient Mussolini. So whatever damage Moses and his secret army are doing to Egypt, it rebounds on his own people. The film seems to be making a statement about the futility of violence as a means of liberation, but the force of the message is somewhat lost as God basically says, "Step aside, Butch," and makes with the plagues. Divine terror does its work as usual, and as usual Pharaoh's heart hardens after letting those people go, and I think you can take it from there....

Exodus makes two fatal mistakes in humanizing Moses and minimizing Pharaoh. Tim Burton was on to something, I think, when he remarked in an interview that he found Charlton Heston terrifying once Moses came down from the mountain in the DeMille film. The eerie power Heston has in the second half of that picture comes from the certainty the character has and the certainty the filmmakers have about the character. Modern audiences are thought to distrust certainty, however, and while an uncertain Moses isn't entirely alien to Scripture, Exodus predictably overdoes it by having Moses bicker constantly with his little snot of a god and fall out with his wife over his mission to Egypt. Like many serious-minded modern films Exodus seems more concerned with how its hero feels or thinks than with what he does; it wants us to empathize with Moses in a way DeMille could not have cared less about. While Bale probably does as well as he could with almost hopeless material, Edgerton is a disaster as Rameses. DeMille realized that Pharaoh had to be a mighty man to defy both Moses and God, and Yul Brynner awesomely filled the bill. Perversely, Scott and his writers envision Rameses as an emotional if not mental weakling who seems to be in over his head from the beginning and compensates with petulant posturing. There may be an implicit indictment of rulers who claim godhood or demand worship from their people, but when Edgerton rants about being "the god" it sounds like a childish tantrum rather than blasphemy. Any movie of the Exodus story needs to be a clash of titanic personalities, but Scott's Exodus botches both. The picture looks good if overproduced in that tiresome CGI way, lacking that genuine "ta-daa!" quality of DeMille's best set pieces. There's nothing as horrifically bad in Exodus as some of the bad acting, from Anne Baxter to extras, in Ten Commandments, but nothing in the new film rises to the level of the old film's magic. That may be because ultimately Exodus has no faith in itself or its story. I'm not saying you have to be a true believer, Jew, Christian or Muslim, to tell this myth right, but if you're going to tell it you've got to commit to it on its own terms, or else what's the point? So now Scott and DeMille are even. Scott easily outclassed the old man by making probably the best Crusades movie ever, but they'll probably still be playing DeMille's Moses movie on TV every Passover long after Exodus is justly forgotten.

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