By Harriet P. Gross
If you decided not to watch the new Exodus movie just because it got such terrible reviews, don’t worry: I’ve done it for you! I couldn’t resist the chance to see what another filmmaker would dare do with the Bible’s great epic after Cecil B. DeMille.
Well, the critics were right. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is just awful. Long, too. But it’s the strangeness of Ridley Scott’s take on the story we all think we know so well that made my time well-spent. This is certainly not like anything ever encountered at any Seder, no matter what Haggadah you’re reading from.
We’ve all come to expect God to be a leading figure in this tale, haven’t we? It’s not necessary to see God to know he’s the star of the show. So I was OK when a bush started to burn. But then, quite suddenly, no more bush. Instead, the camera was on a child. A little boy. This strange figure appears several times in the film; he’s a pivotal character, especially when he’s right there, looking on during the scene in which Moses is laboriously chiseling the letters of the Tablets on a big, slate-y looking block of stone. All by himself. Did Moses really write the Commandments? What happened to the Finger of God? Is that kid who’s standing around really a stand-in for… Well, you get the message. And it’s definitely not a particularly Jewish one.
That, of course, comes after the plagues, which in this version are not discrete; they come rolling in, one immediately after the other, into each other. Moses — who, by the way, is dirty, disheveled and uncombed during most of his on-screen time — never goes before Pharaoh 10 times to say, “Let my people go.” This poor ruler — who, by the way, turns out in this version to be the blood son of the one whom Moses was raised with, not his father — doesn’t get another chance to refuse. Everything happens quickly; hungry crocodiles emerge from bloody water, and the Egyptian first-born are slain simultaneously with the appearance of the great darkness. The photography, I must say, doesn’t let us miss a detail; the young Pharaoh is still scratching his facial boils as his own young son dies.
And now: the crossing of the Red Sea! This is nothing like DeMille’s camera trickery, where great waves crack neatly, with a great whoosh, into two high water walls that let the slaves walk directly on the dry land between them. Here, there’s no trick. Moses tests out a place that’s shallow but far from dry, and everyone trudges through and across, getting thoroughly wet in the process. The scene is dark; there’s not a spot of color anywhere; the Israelites’ garments, dark brown to begin with, get even darker as they soak up the sea. In actuality, this may be a truer picture of what the Biblical Exodus must have looked like, but it’s not the movie we’ll want our kids to watch the day before Passover.
Pharaoh waffles a lot before he makes his decision to go after the runaways, and a huge army is with him — part following, part going ahead. Where all these troops have come from is a mystery, considering how many Egyptians died on screen in that parade of earlier plagues; somehow, many, many soldiers and horses and chariots are still available, and very quickly mobilized. After lots of losses in the high water, Moses of course prevails in a final encounter with the man who was once his not-blood brother.
Now, here’s the truth: I loved seeing “Gods and Kings” because it was a bargain. I waited until it was playing out its last local appearances at a bargain movie house and paid $1.25. There were only two other people in the whole theater with me. No crying babies. No smelly popcorn. No annoying little blue screens. This “Exodus” was a mechaya!