Hollywood doesnâ€™t do Bible well. Hollywood doesnâ€™t do religion well in general. Hollywood doesnâ€™t do well anything thatâ€™s out of its comfort zone â€“ patriotism, conservatism, family values. You would think that the essence of a good performance is the ability to get inside other peopleâ€™s personas and portray them convincingly. On that account, Hollywood is full of bad actors.
Which is why I surprised myself yesterday when I finally got to watch Ridley Scottâ€™s â€œExodus: Gods and Kingsâ€ on Blu-ray and I actually quite enjoyed it. Probably because my expectations were so low. The last Biblically-themed movie Iâ€™ve watched was the Russell Crowe atrocity â€œNoahâ€, where Darren Aronofsky turned the Book of Genesis into a Deep Green action extravaganza straight from Al Goreâ€™s wet dreams, filled with fantasy creature rejects from â€œThe Lord of the Ringsâ€ (â€œThey had talking trees? Weâ€™ll have talking rocks!â€). And when I say Iâ€™ve watched â€œNoahâ€, this might be an overstatement; I lasted only about half an hour, before turning the DVD off and thinking, Verily, I say unto thee, the wrong people got drowned in the Flood.
Unlike Aronofsky, Scott can do epic movies. And unlike what passes for epic movies these days, Scott never allows his films to degenerate into bad CGI jokes. Scottâ€™s movies might not win Oscars (although some, like â€œGladiatorâ€, do), but there is still a soul inside all these flashy and expensive bodies, not to mention real actors working with scripts that are not written by bored 12-year olds. I wasnâ€™t quite persuaded by Christian Bale as Moses (but neither was I by Charlton Heston) â€“ or for that matter by Moses as portrayed in the movie; but our own Joel Edgerton made a splendid Pharaoh, looking exactly as I imagine the Egyptians of three and a half thousand years ago must have looked like. Who says weâ€™re not a nation of migrants?
Scott is not a man of faith, which can make creating religious movies somewhat tricky. â€œExodusâ€ could have almost been a religious epic without God. The burning bush might be a hallucination induced by a hard knock to the head; the plagues might all have perfectly normal, natural explanations. But even Scott canâ€™t make the final plague, the death of the first-borns, into a supra-natural happening. In the end, God (not gods) is present, even if he is a cruel god in a cruel world of the ancient Middle East. This is something that Scott has been taken to task for too:
The most striking cinematic choice Scott made as director was to use an eleven-year-old boy to portray God. This is not necessarily blasphemous, since the incarnate God was actually an eleven-year-old boy at one point. But when we see God basically throwing a fit about Pharaohâ€™s treatment of the Hebrews, we see the ideological reason for Scottâ€™s choice. He is implying that the Old Testament God is like a petulant child who gets irrationally angry and makes extreme demands.
But itâ€™s the God of Scott thatâ€™s more at place and in peace in the world of Exodus than Scottâ€™s Moses, the sceptical humanist, torn by doubts, raked with guilt and brimming with empathy. One feels by the end of the movie he is more a Scott of today than a Moses of yesterday.
When all is said and done, what we commonly know as the Old Testament narrative is not a very uplifting story, full as it is of death, slaughter, cruelty and suffering â€“ as full as life and history are in general â€“ only made redeemable by simultaneously being the story of a slow ethical evolution. There is a lot of collateral damage on the road to the Promised Land, even if we do get to the Calvary some twelve centuries later.