(1) The Obvious Casting Controversies
You know what, you can’t not deal with this so… the casting choices are Not Ideal, to say the least. Not because they’re not good actors, because they are, but because they’re mostly so danged White Westerner with Eyeliner.
Do I wish Ridley Scott had cast appropriately to the cultures he was making a film about? Yes.
Do I understand why he didn’t? Yes.
Would I have gone to see it if he had? Yes.
Do I think he would have got the same audience numbers if he had? Sadly, no.
Do I think Ridley Scott is one of the few filmmakers would could have told a studio to stuff the numbers, he was going to cast right anyway? Yes.
Would I serious have expected him to do so? Sadly, no, I don’t think he’s that guy.
Did I make a horrible compromise by going to the cinema because I was interested in what the film had to say, knowing that the box office won’t care or recognise that I went despite the casting, not because of it? Probably, but you know what, I knowingly made the choice. I’ll live with it. I think that it is a film worth engaging with – whether you think it’s a film worth me engaging with is up to you and whether you want to read this stuff, pretty much. I want to write it.
(2) The Film
So here’s a thing: based on the trailer I expected Exodus to be ‘gloriously awful’ and fall hard into the so-bad-it’s-good category – and it doesn’t. I was surprisingly impressed. I think it’s a better film than Noah, for example – but not nearly so much fun, because it’s much more serious. I think it didn’t quite work – it didn’t have the emotional force that I want a big epic to have – but it worked far better than I was expecting.
There were a couple of things I thought were really strong, one that was really interesting, and a couple of things that I think were weak – with one of those last in particular feeding into my overall ‘nearly, but not quite’ response to the film.
Firstly, I really liked Moses’ wrestling with God: from his first correction of the Viceroy about the meaning of the name Israel, to his final interaction with the Messenger:
Messenger: I’ve noticed that from you.
Messenger: You don’t always agree with me.
Moses: Nor you with me. I’ve noticed.
I like that Moses’ questioning and doubt isn’t met with scorn – I think that is something positive that Scott, who would describe himself as an atheist, brings to an account of a human’s connection with God. The Messenger sometimes tweaks Moses about it (as in the scene before the plagues), but there is always a but – as in the discussion over whether God needs Moses, where the Messenger snaps back, ‘Maybe I don’t need you…’, but the young actor’s phrasing of it leaves us hanging on a but… but maybe I do or but maybe I want you anyway. Personally, I tend towards the idea that God, in creating, made a choice to need us (as well as want us) and I think the film shows something of how this looks.
It’s why I don’t much like the very end of their last interaction, which goes:
Messenger: And yet here we are, still talking. But not for much longer.
Moses, you see, is carving the Ten Commandments – the laws that will make him dispensible as a leader, because they, not a god-like leader (like a Pharoah) will connect the Israelites to God and shape them as a society and a nation. All well and good – in a way – but laws have to be interpreted and applied, and Israel had priests, and judges, kings, and prophets, and God continued to talk to all of those (and also to Moses, post-commandments), despite the laws. God still needs – and wants – to talk to people, not just to mould them into a perfect society.
Secondly I really liked the way that the film makes it clear that Moses an outsider in every community: he’s not one of Pharoah’s blood family – not even Egyptian – but neither is he a Hebrew, both because of his upbringing and his choice (until the end of the film). He also doesn’t belong to his wife’s people – the film is clear that her god is not identified with the Israelite god. In some ways, Moses of this film is very contemporary: he has knowledge of a number of religions (or none) to choose between, and he makes his choice. But it’s also telling, I think, that God chooses someone on the margins to be his messenger and leader – someone who might not normally be listened to as a voice of authority, who may not want power – and who might be less susceptible to corruption or to listening to themselves over Him…
And yet… in the film, the main factor in Moses’ wrestling with God is how little he wants to follow God. He thinks he knows how to lead men, to lead a rebellion, and challenge Rameses: he’s an experienced and successful general, with a detailed knowledge of how Egypt works. It makes dramatic sense in many ways: self-sufficient, smart, talented human struggles through and becomes humble and faithful to God, and leads his people – but I don’t know that it makes more dramatic sense than the alternative. That alternative would be messed up human, who thinks he doesn’t have the skills to be a leader of God’s people, but grows into it, guided by God, accepting that he is the right person in the right place at the right time: that would be my reading of Exodus, the book. I don’t know if it’s fact that Exodus chooses not to go with that arc that means that even in the moments when you are supposed to think Moses is at a crisis point, you never quite believe that he is, because he’s too solid and too aware of his skills, or whether it’s more than that… You see, I wonder whether the fact that the director isn’t (or maybe, can’t, I’m not quite sure of the right choice of words here) go on the same journey as Moses lessens the emotional impact of his film: do I never quite ‘feel’ Moses’ journey to faith because the director (and possibly also the actor) doesn’t comprehend it himself?
I like that Exodus makes God incomprehensible to Moses (and the Israelites) at times, because God is incomprehensible in many ways… but I find it interesting – and difficult – that Ridley Scott gives God a reason, effectively a revenge narrative, for this sending of the plagues, especially the death of the first born sons. Because while I think you can – and people clearly do – interpret that narrative from the story of the Exodus, I don’t think that the story requires you to read God’s particular preference for the Israelites as the Chosen People as leading him to revenge himself on the Egyptians on their behalf. For me, the story is more about justice than about revenge – although, yes, that justice appears as harsh and cruel from today’s perspective.
Because Scott doesn’t believe, he doesn’t perform that mental balancing act that many Christians are used to attemping: the art of holding in tension faith in a loving God with the acknowledgment that the world is an apparently careless, often cruel place. It involves avoiding being either Panglossian (everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds) or fatalistic (what will be will be) – or dismissing the existence of God because of the existence suffering – but seeking to kind of be in both faith and in reality – which is why hope, in Christian theology, is so important.
The death of Egypt’s first born sons is startlingly effective in throwing this tension into relief, quietly shattering, because, Why, God? but also the moment that faith and the hope of freedom is first fulfilled – as Pharoah lets the Israelites go. And yet, it doesn’t feel like a powerful emotional moment for Moses (at least it didn’t for me): one where he doesn’t get it but chooses to trust God anyway. He rather, just, carries on carrying on.
In the end, Moses the character seems to get there at the end, as he identifies with Israel as ‘my people’ – but the filmmaker(s?) I think, finds Moses’ journey to faith as incomprehensible as Moses at times finds God. But without a successful emotional catharsis point – either at the final plague, or at the Red Sea (the scene with Moses and Ramses mostly just left me empty and a bit baffled) – I found that the film failed to hit a chord, to do more than just plain ‘tell the story’. It’s not that Scott can’t hit those high notes – the emotional power of Gladiator is its ability to make you believe in, ‘The idea that was Rome’, for example; that of Alien to make you believe in the power of Ripley – but that in Exodus he doesn’t. I believe in the power of God to save – but in watching Exodus, Ridley Scott didn’t make me believe in the power of God to save.