November 13, 2018

Despite artistic and political license, ‘Exodus’ connects to contemporary Jews

If you are going to see “Exodus: Gods and Kings” because it depicts an iconic cultural narrative that you want to better understand, I would caution against relying on director Ridley Scott’s version.  

This epic adventure does offer an unparalleled work of digital art that successfully transforms a biblical story into a blockbuster, even if the film’s fidelity to the biblical text is lacking. The army of digital artists commissioned for the project seems absurd until you see the film and begin to imagine the hundreds of thousands of hours it took to make it. But once I let go of the expectation for the movie to accurately weave in the nuances of the Bible or subsequent interpretive tradition, I was able to appreciate how effectively it brought Moses to life as a deeply relatable and human character.

Played by Christian Bale, the Moses we encounter at the beginning is a skeptic of all religion. He scoffs at the Egyptian divinations with which he was raised. He pities the Hebrews’ faith in a God who has left them enslaved for four centuries. And he challenges the superstitions taught to his son by his Midianite wife. His “conversion” comes on the heels of a near-death experience during which he hallucinates the burning bush. 

Yet, even after this transformation, Moses still finds himself conflicted. He cannot fully discard the Egyptian identity and connections of his youth for his destiny with the Hebrew people. 

Moses, a struggling skeptic who navigates multiple identities, ought to resonate with more than a few young Jewish Americans. He sees the meaning in believing and belonging, yet questions what he must sacrifice to give himself over to it. I commend the scriptwriters and Bale for connecting the motives of such a legendary figure to our own contemporary struggles without its seeming forced or projected. 

In not feeling bound by the biblical text, the writers take some unexpected liberties that shock at first but effectively capture important subtle aspects of the story. God (or God’s messenger — it’s never clear which) appears as a small shepherd boy. When Moses and this divine being speak, the boy often conveys revelation in conversation over the ancient hospitality ritual of tea. There is no booming voice. There is no awe-filled terrifying encounter. This artistic choice captures the profound intimacy in the relationship between God and Moses that stands alone in the Bible.

Other artistic choices have landed Scott in the midst of some controversy. When speaking to his casting choices, he noted, “Egypt was — as it is now — a confluence of cultures, as a result of being a crossroads between Africa, the Middle East and Europe. We cast actors from different ethnicities to reflect this diversity of culture.” However, with major parts played by Caucasian actors Bale, Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver, and servant characters notably defined by darker skin, his choices have come into question. Scott’s clumsy justification of those choices did not help his case. “I can’t mount a film of this budget … and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.  I’m just not going to get that financed.” 

Bale rose to Scott’s defense with a more nuanced approach that invites audiences to self-reflect. The Guardian quoted Bale as saying, “I don’t think fingers should be pointed, but we should all look at ourselves and say, ‘Are we supporting wonderful actors in films by North African and Middle Eastern filmmakers and actors?’ Because there are some fantastic actors out there. If people start supporting those films more and more, then financiers in the market will follow.”

People can disagree about the controversy over the film’s casting, though in a time of heightened awareness about the way race still factors into society, this is a conversation that we ought to become more comfortable having. 

“Exodus: God and Kings” is a movie worth seeing for its artistic achievements alone. The fact that it will likely also become a catalyst for conversation about ancient text and contemporary issues is an added bonus.

Sarah Bassin is an assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills