Reviewed by: Lyle Dunne
Christian Bale’s Moses… takes a 21st-century view of plagues and smiting, and thus his relationship with God doesn’t really develop, though they do seem later to agree that Commandments might be useful.
Spoiler alert: the Jews get away.
With a story like this, the director is at a disadvantage: everyone knows the ending.
Moreover, people come to it with a variety of expectations; the film has been controversial in a couple of respects.
Most of the fuss was about casting well-known actors (who tend ipso facto to be Americans, though English actors are included, and even Australians like Joel Edgerton as the Pharaoh Rameses) in the major roles. Dark make-up worn by Caucasian actors playing non-Caucasians is particularly politically incorrect (except in the case of Chris Lilley in Jonah from Tonga – but that’s on the ABC). Yet it’s hard to argue with Director Ridley Scott’s defence that it would be impossible to finance a film of this magnitude with unknown but ethnically-appropriate actors. (One might also query what sort of audience it would attract.)
Downplaying the miraculous?
There was also a concern that Scott, variously self-described as an atheist or (more recently) an agnostic, would downplay the miraculous, providing natural explanations for the plagues of Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. Watching the movie, I had the sense that Scott was not only aware of this concern, but had milked it for advance publicity, and was using it for dramatic effect, to counter the fact that everyone knows the story. Thus God (or rather, a messenger from God, disembodied voices being a bit too Cecil B De Mille) speaks from, or at least appears near, the burning bush – but as Moses has just suffered a blow to the head, we’re not sure if he’s imagining it.
The plagues appear at first to be natural phenomena, and there’s even an attempt by one of the court officials to explain them away as such – which convinces no-one.
The principal reason for this is presumably to provide a bit more tension for Moses: is he on board with the program? But it also seems to be the way God works. Even miracles are seldom so obvious as to compel belief.
Thus the crossing of the Red Sea is in my view very well handled, with a bit of a misdirect, gradual build-up, and a denouement that would satisfy a special-effects junkie. (I won’t spoil it with a detailed description – but you van watch the official trailer and get a pretty good idea of what’s in store, and indeed of most of the special effects. Make sure you click on full screen.)
Chariots, as any Ben Hur fan knows, offer plenty of opportunities for thrills and spills, and with the latest CG effects there are some dramatic battle scenes early on. Purists might object to the use of cavalry, requiring types of horses and saddles unknown at the time – but this is not the History Channel.
Where the film, like many big-budget spectaculars, falls down is in the area of the characters, their development and relationships. More could have been done with Moses’ central relationships with Pharaoh – and with God. But Rameses seems unaffected by Moses’ transition from adopted brother to Hebrew slave to rebel leader to spokesman for God. (Edgerton’s buff-and-tough Pharaoh owes little to the biblical original, with his daily repudiation of deals after each plague is withdrawn; his decision to pursue the Israelites after finally agreeing to release them thus seems mysterious.) Christian Bale’s Moses takes everything in his stride, in the detached manner of a Charlton Heston or Clint Eastwood. He takes a 21st-century view of plagues and smiting, and thus his relationship with God doesn’t really develop, though they do seem later to agree that Commandments might be useful. (There’s no suggestion that they’re anything more than useful.)
Of course, one can argue that focussing on relationships here is anachronistic: one might as well complain that Beowulf or The Iliad is too big on violence, and weak on character development.
But this is not The Ten Commandments. The figures are not reduced to archetypes, delivering stentorian pronouncements from mountain-tops. Moreover, Moses himself is arguably anachronistic, delivering an implicitly New Testament judgement on the Old Testament God – or his messenger. He doesn’t doubt his ability (no speech defect, no spokesman) so much as disagree with the strategy.
Perhaps Catholics should be less concerned than, say, Jews or Fundamentalist Protestants about this. Moses in many ways prefigures Christ (a survivor of a massacre of innocents who went on to save his people) but the story of the Exodus is not a Christian story, and it is understandable that from a Christian viewpoint, aspects seem baffling and inhumane. This may be even more true from a post-Christian viewpoint which doesn’t acknowledge the source of its concept of what’s humane, back-casting it as universal.
And I have to say that the book of Exodus is not a novel, and the figure of Moses remains enigmatic, with room for a variety of possible “takes” in a modern film.
An optimist might argue that this film is theologically and artistically flawed, particularly in the way the God of Abraham is presented. For my part, as a pessimist, I thought it was much better, theologically and artistically, than I had expected, given its antecedents.