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26 December 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings

With the release of Exodus: Gods and Kings today, Lucy Cooper reviews the latest in a line of biblical blockbusters. As she discovered, this isn't like the story you learnt at Sunday school.

by Lucy Cooper

Exodus: Gods and Kings, directed by Ridley Scott, starring Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton, and in cinemas today, is not the warm and fuzzy family film you may have been expecting this Christmas.

The Hollywood release is the latest in a long line of movies telling the Exodus story and this one, similar to Noah in April this year, is sparking controversy, debate and intrigue, all while providing epic entertainment and special effects.

As with Noah, some Christians may go wishing to see an accurate and faithful retelling of the biblical narrative but Scott, like Aronofsky, has taken major artistic license, as film directors can.

When reading the story we can gloss over the pain, confusion and downright hellish suffering of the Israelite slaves, the fury of the Pharaoh, the: "Let my people go!" scenes and the nightmare plagues. This film certainly doesn't let us do that.

Many agree that because these well-known directors are taking on biblical stories there is an opportunity to start thinking through themes and discussing deviations from the narrative as a result of watching the film.

Krish Kandiah, principal of the London School of Theology, said: "When an Oscar-nominated filmmaker decides to make a movie about a key biblical narrative you can either criticise him or start a conversation. I'm always of the mindset that a conversation is a good place to start."

Nick Pollard, director of Alliance member organisation Damaris, said: "Like classic works of art inspired by the Bible, the artist doesn't set out just to represent the story exactly as it is in the Bible. They highlight different issues, raise underlying questions and challenge us to apply them in our contemporary lives."

In his Exodus review, Krish Kandiah highlights a number of big conversations the film ignites. Mentioning a naturalistic counter-narrative to the miraculous plagues and the parting of the Red Sea coinciding with a meteor strike and resulting tsunami, he writes: "Is Scott trying to demythologise the story, looking for an escape route to placate atheist critics, or avoid the truth of the miraculous interventions of God and their implications? Are we supposed to conclude that God is simply a delusion?

"A faith that endured that long under those conditions is testament to the reality of God, as is the incredible account of the liberation of a minority ethnic group from the Egyptian superpower. So is the fact that thousands of years later these stories are still being retold. God has not forgotten us and we have not forgotten Him. We are still a God-haunted culture."

The visual representation of God as a young boy may be unexpected by viewers and other characters, seeing Moses speaking to himself, could believe he was just concussed or hallucinating.

At times it felt like there was a lack of insight into the character of Moses, his brotherly relationship with Rameses, and his conversions seem brief. He frequently argues fiercely with God, but it was he, at the beginning, who clarifies that Israelites mean those that 'wrestle' with God, not 'fight' with Him.

Krish adds: "Scott has read enough of the book of Exodus and the Psalms to know that a relationship with God can be loud and argumentative. And he seems to understand that God doesn't have to fit our expectations or traditions.

"Scott has definitely made his God character fickle and erratic. This is seen clearly in Scott's handling God's decision to make the last of the 10 plagues the killing of the first born son in every Egyptian household. There is an angry shouting match between Moses and God. Moses argues that this is barbaric revenge and says he will have no part in it. The events of the Passover are thus portrayed as a bad decision made by a stroppy child."

Of course, a film like this is not intended to be a faithful re-enactment, but some might see embellishments –such as Moses planning and training an army and the face-offs between Pharoah and Moses –as unhelpful. It could be seen as though these storylines side-line God in the story.

But Nick Pollard reflects on the lens with which we see God portrayed: "We experience the journey of Moses with him, feel his turmoil as he wrestles with God, we sense his doubts. We see God through the eyes of Moses on his journey to faith. Moses is wrestling with questions of faith and he sees God through his particular lens –at times wilful, angry, even petulant. He is struggling to understand why God is allowing such suffering and I think that this film will cause many to think again about God and it will challenge us all to go back to the Bible and look more deeply into the story of the Exodus."

I would recommend watching Exodus. So long as you are not faint-hearted or in need of Christmas cheer. You can make up your own mind and let it start some conversations –whether these are positive or critical.

Damaris has produced Exodus: Gods and Kings resources to help engage with the film.
Krish Kandiah's review of Exodus in full