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Christian Bale’s Moses in ‘Exodus’: Insecure? Schizophrenic?

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December 11, 2014

Christian Bale’s reputation for being mercurial and intense in years past is well known, but during a recent telephone conversation, the 40-year-old actor proved to be thoughtful, even modest, as he described tackling the monumental role of Moses in Ridley Scott’s biblical epic, “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” opening Dec. 12.

“Of course, it was incredibly daunting,” said Bale, best known for playing Batman in the “Dark Knight” trilogy, as well as his Academy Award-winning turn in David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” and his portrayal of a Jewish conman in Russell’s 2013 “American Hustle,” which earned him another Oscar nod.

“I thought, how on earth am I going to portray Moses? Everybody has such a strong idea of who Moses should be; he is so crucial, especially to the Jews, and to Christians and Muslims as well.”

As a child in Britain, Bale said he attended “various religious services” and developed a “tremendous respect” for people of faith: “My family had wonderful charity extended to us by a Jehovah’s Witness, who took us into her home at a time when we wouldn’t have had anyplace else to live,” he recalled by way of example.

But by the time Scott came calling about Moses, Bale said he was nonreligious and, to boot, everything he knew about the Jewish prophet came from Charlton Heston’s performance in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 classic film, “The Ten Commandments.” 

To prepare for the role, Bale immersed himself in arduous research, reading the Torah, he said, “from beginning to end,” as well as the Quran, Louis Ginzberg’s “The Legends of the Jews” and “Moses: A Life” by Jonathan Kirsch, book editor for the Journal, which helped the actor get a handle on his character’s “humanity,” he said.

“I found Moses to be one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever studied,” Bale added. “He’s so complex, because he goes through so many transitions in his life. He is at once liberator and lawgiver, somebody who has an acute sense of the unjust and the pursuit of righting wrongs, but he’s also incredibly passionate and strong-minded, even while he harbors incredible doubts and insecurities.

“Everybody’s take on Moses is different, so I knew, OK, we have to do something that is our own. The Bible in so many places does not go into detail, so that you have to fill in the gaps, which is like the Jewish tradition of midrash.”

Bale acknowledged that Scott’s film — which has so far received mixed reviews — takes liberties with the Exodus story. The movie does not open with Moses in the bulrushes as in the Torah, but rather as a grown man, the adopted son of the Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro), and “blood brother” of Seti’s son, Ramses (Joel Edgerton), with whom he wages war against the Hittites and who becomes Pharaoh upon Seti’s death. 

Of course the Torah makes no mention of Ramses, even though many scholars consider Ramses II to have been the pharaoh at the time of the Exodus, circa 1,300 B.C.E.; nor is the biblical Moses ignorant of his Jewish heritage, as he is at the beginning of Scott’s film. In the movie, the future prophet only learns of his roots when he meets Nun (Ben Kingsley), an elder of a Jewish slave community, who tells Moses that at the time of his birth, an Egyptian edict decreed the death of every Hebrew male newborn. And so Moses’ Israelite parents floated him in an area of the Nile where they knew that Pharaoh’s daughter bathed, and she took him and raised him as her own son.

When Ramses’ spies inform him of Moses’ true parentage, Bale’s character is exiled into the land of Midian, where he weds Zipporah even as he continues to doubt the existence of any kind of god. That changes (spoiler alert) nine years later, when, during a fierce thunderstorm, Moses is knocked unconscious by an avalanche of rocks and awakens buried up to his face in mud — possibly with a head injury — only to see a bush burning nearby. God then speaks to Moses, not as a disembodied voice but in the form of a spiteful, wrathful, even petulant 11-year-old boy (Isaac Andrews) named Malak (“angel” in Hebrew), who growls, “I need a general,” while ordering the prophet to return to Egypt and confront Pharaoh about freeing the slaves. Pharaoh refuses, spectacular 3-D plagues ensue, and Moses argues with God about the harshness of the plagues even as he hopes to lead his people out of Egypt.

The depiction of God as a child, and at times an unlikable one at that, already has provoked criticism online by some Christian and conservative bloggers; the right-wing website Breitbart News Network, for example, accused Scott of directly contravening “possibly the most basic tenet of Judaism: that God is One and cannot be anthropomorphized” and denounced the director for his “bare-faced insult to the core of Judaism.”

Lawrence Schiffman, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies and director of the Global Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies at New York University, noted, “There are some midrashim that what Moses saw in the burning bush was an angel, but this angel would not have been irascible.”

Bale, for his part, defended Scott’s decision: “How on earth could Ridley have possibly depicted God? How do you do that visually in a film?” he said. “We have wonderful effects, and Ridley is an incredibly talented filmmaker, but everyone has limits. I really don’t know what his alternatives could have been.”

In October, Bale himself raised eyebrows when he declared at a press conference that he viewed Moses as “likely schizophrenic” and as one of the most “barbaric” individuals he’d ever read about in his life.

On the telephone, Bale clarified why he had dubbed Moses as likely to have been mentally ill: “When I do a period piece, in trying to access the character, I like to imagine them existing nowadays,” he explained. “And I thought, probably most people today would not say a person who claims to speak to God is a prophet — they would say he was schizophrenic instead. So I portray Moses with the terror, first off, of being the only person of his time to actually speak to God directly, and the doubts he must have been filled with [thereafter]; nobody is assuring him that he is in fact a prophet. I found that to be a very intriguing take and therefore a new telling of this incredible story. My character does ultimately come to have complete confidence and faith that he’s doing the right thing. But it’s very different from Charlton Heston’s [relentlessly] self-confident portrayal, which took place at a time when it was intolerable to think of movie stars behaving with any kind of indecision.

“If Moses were alive today, he would likely be tried for war crimes,” Bale said of his claim that the prophet was “barbaric.” He cites biblical passages that are not included as events in the film: The chapter in Numbers where Moses orders the slaughter of all Midianite prisoners of war, save the virgin girls; and the section of Exodus in which Moses punishes the Israelites for worshiping the golden calf by forcing them to drink a scalding liquid made of the ground-up idol before ordering the slaughter of 3,000 Hebrews for the transgression. 

“At the golden calf, Moses organizes what I call in my book a ‘death squad,’ ” author Kirsch said in a telephone interview, adding that throughout the Bible there are glimpses of “the punishing and brutal Moses” and “Moses as the most bloodthirsty of generals.”

“But the reality is that the Bible, because it comes from multiple sources writing for multiple purposes, presents many different versions of Moses that don’t always cohere,” said Kirsch, who added that he had not yet seen the film. “We’re seeing multiple personalities of Moses, because we have multiple authors. There is Moses the lawgiver, the general, the punishing prophet, the friend and champion of the enslaved Israelites, the confidante of God. And he’s described at the burning bush as being meek, slow of speech and reluctant to be a leader; he’s cowering and hiding and doesn’t want to go on this historic mission.”

Other controversies also have been raging online about the film, notably Scott’s casting of white actors to portray the main characters, all ancient Egyptians and Jews (Fox Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch didn’t help matters when he tweeted, “Since when are Egyptians not white?”) and Scott’s claim that he couldn’t have secured the film’s approximately $140 million budget had he cast “Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.”

Scott, a self-proclaimed agnostic, also said he sought to depict more scientific or naturalistic reasons for some of the miracles shown in the film, according to news reports: For example, the blood plague occurs after crocodiles viciously attack humans and each other in the Nile; and the parting of the Red Sea appears not as a Divine splitting of the waters, but more like a slow drainage, followed by a tsunami wave that kills the Egyptians. The latter sequence was inspired, Scott has said, by a real underwater earthquake that spawned a tsunami off the coast of Italy circa 3,000 B.C.E.

Kirsch suggested that this more scientific approach conflicts with Jewish tradition. The Passover seder, he said, notes that “God brought us out of Egypt with ‘signs and wonders.’ It’s the phenomenon of what we would call miracles — things that are inexplicable and could come only from God. … So the Bible does not offer or invite us to come up with naturalistic or rational explanations; quite the opposite.” 

Even so, Bale insisted, the film was made with a hearty respect for devout viewers. As for Jewish audiences, he said, “What I would like most of all would be that people are talking about the movie when they leave the theater, whether they like it or not.” 

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” opens in theaters on Dec. 12.

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