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Sunday Lifestyle

Can Batman play Moses?

- Scott R. Garceau - The Philippine Star

One doesn’t need to think much about why, exactly, director Ridley Scott decided to bring the story of Moses back to the big screen at this time; one only needs to think of Gladiator and recall that Scott has proven chops in bringing swords and sandals historical epics to the big screen. (He also went Old Testament with 2005’s Jerusalem-set Kingdom of Heaven.)

Instead of bellowing Russell Crowe, in Exodus: Gods and Kings, which opened this week, we have manly man Christian Bale taking on the role of Moses. And this is not your father’s Charlton Heston as Moses, by the way; Bale is a warrior, as we see from an opening setup where he’s pitted against an army of Hittites. His half-brother Ramses (a nuanced Joel Edgerton) is a little less heroic on the battlefield than Moses, so it’s not surprising that the sibling rivalry reaches a boil when their Pharaoh father Seti (John Turturro) dies, leaving the Egyptian throne to his real son.
There are the usual rumblings. A sect of Hebrew slaves led by Ben Kingsley meets secretly to air their gripes and talk of the kingdom of Canaan that awaits them; Moses catches wind of this, and also hears that he’s not the Egyptian buck he thought he was, but a son of slaves sent down the Nile in a basket by his sister Miriam. Adopted by the Pharaoh, he’s conflicted about his life: Egypt sure looks grand and epic and all, but it’s built upon the backs of countless slaves (or by alien astronauts, if you believe Eric von Daniken’s theory in Chariots of the Gods?).

It becomes a moot point when newly installed Ramses II exiles Moses from Egypt, and the Scruffy One begins wandering the desert, looking for answers.

Bale, who slips from his gruff Bruce Wayne voice in the opening to his customary cockney British, plays Moses as a badass, but one who has to wrestle with his own identity before he can truly set “his people” free. (A similar inner struggle must have bedeviled Bruce Wayne/The Batman at times.) Steve Zailian’s script serves Moses pretty well, conveying his nobility of purpose, though often depicting the man as confused and baffled by the instructions of God. He expresses disbelief upon hearing the prophesied story of his journey down the Nile from Kingsley (“It’s not even a good story!”) and carries around a trusty Egyptian saber, which seems like a flashy embellishment on the Old Testament text, but it proves useful in, say, dispatching thieves and assassins in the desert.

In pre-release interviews, Bale hasn’t helped matters much by saying that Moses was “probably schizophrenic and one of the most barbaric people I’ve ever read about.” This has inflamed some Christians, who were probably not too pleased with Russell Crowe’s portrayal of another prophet in Darren Aranofsky’s recent Biblical epic, Noah. Barbarism may just go with the territory of wandering through deserts, though.

Admittedly, the source material on Moses is a bit scarce. But Bale plays him as flawed and human, perhaps to address the difficult matter of how he survived in the desert, rags and all, and whether or not he actually communicated with God (here depicted as a willful boy who stands next to a burning bush and gives Moses tips on how to overthrow Egyptian rule).

All the Hebrew slaves really want, of course, is to be released and sent on their way to Canaan — geographically, across the Red Sea and close to what is now Israel, Lebanon and Palestine.

 

 

Ramses will have none of it. He dithers and plays with his asps and tells Moses to go jump in the lake. Moses relays all this to the God-child, who dutifully tells his chosen one to just “stand back for a while… and watch.”

The Ten Plagues begin with a bunch of crocodiles slaughtering humans on a boat (shades of Jaws) and then each other, leading to a large amount of blood befouling the Nile, which leads to fish kill. All this is presented in as scientific a way as possible, with Ewen Bremner (Spud from Trainspotting) explaining how the bloodied river leads to frogs escaping and overtaking the city, leading to dead frogs and maggots, leading to a plague of flies, etc., etc.

It’s this seesawing motion between secular explanation and the need for absolute faith that actually propels Exodus: Gods and Kings to credible heights. If it were as determinedly crazy as Aronofsky’s faith-questioning Noah, the story might not work. On the other hand, if it stuck to a strictly factual interpretation of the Bible, it would risk alienating religious viewers. When Moses’ right-hand man Joshua (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) spots his boss talking to, well, nobody in the desert, he doesn’t decide Moses is cuckoo; he chooses to believe in this new prophet. It’s a faith that takes Moses and his ragtag exodus of 400,000 Jews out of Egypt and across a miraculously shallow Red Sea. (Director Scott suggests, with a whipping cyclone nearby, that the parting of the Red Sea has actual meteorological roots, i.e., a brewing tsunami.)

There are grand scenes involving drowned Egyptian soldiers, and blood-red tides, and swarms of locusts, and the look of Ancient Memphis, Egypt is majestic. Director Scott has found a setting as epic as his Ancient Rome in Gladiator.

Not all the acting is superior, though Kingsley comes through well, as does Edgerton (remembered as a saving grace in Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby). As Ramses, he’s weak and vacillating, but also vindictive and relentless, a bad combination for any king, let alone a god.

In the penultimate showdown, Ramses, clutching his dead son in his arms, asks Moses: “What kind of fanatics worship a god such as this?” Well, it was Old Testament times. They were very old school back then.

In the end, Exodus: Gods and Kings is a Biblical spectacle that does both Cecil B. DeMille and Ridley Scott proud. It has the scale of Gladiator, and another forceful central figure in Bale, who does an impressive job as the badass — or is it Batman? — Moses.

 

 

BRUCE WAYNE

CHRISTIAN BALE

DIRECTOR SCOTT

GODS AND KINGS

JOEL EDGERTON

MOSES

OLD TESTAMENT

RED SEA

RIDLEY SCOTT

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