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The Big Screen Gets Biblical, Again

A rabbi’s take on Ridley Scott’s new blockbuster, Exodus: Gods and Kings

Simcha Weinstein
December 08, 2014
Christian Bale in 'Exodus: God and Kings.' (Twentieth Century Fox)
Christian Bale in 'Exodus: God and Kings.' (Twentieth Century Fox)

So a guy named Christian is playing Moses. Only in Hollywood…

Mark 2014 as the year the box office got biblical again. First, Darren Aronofsky’s blockbuster Noah became an unexpected box-office hit. Now Academy Award-winning director Ridley Scott has reimagined Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments with Exodus: Gods and Kings. The movie, which opens Dec. 12, features Batman-turned-John Connor-turned-Moses Christian Bale leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, defying Joel Edgerton’s evil Pharaoh Ramses.

Seamy, secular Hollywood seems to have suddenly acquired an appetite for all things spiritual—and religious leaders are making their way to the A-list. I was recently flown to Los Angeles to meet with entertainment industry executives, where a producer informed me, “Focus groups are screaming for faith-based programming.”

It’s almost as if Hollywood is coming full circle. At the start of the motion picture era, silent movies with scriptural themes were commonplace. (It helped that the Bible is in the public domain.) After a lull, these epics regained their popularity during the postwar years, reaching a zenith with 1959’s spectacular Ben-Hur, which won a record 11 Academy Awards.

Ironically, that film’s success marked the beginning of the end for the biblical movie. A stark 1966 Time magazine cover asked, “Is God Dead?” (They strongly implied the answer was “yes.”) The movie-going public clamored for glossy spy flicks, earthy “adult dramas,” and science fiction “space operas.”

Since then, few films based on biblical stories have made it to the big screen. Monty Python’s Life of Brian was a controversial parody that so thoroughly mocked the genre it became almost impossible for audiences to take a serious rendition, well, seriously. (And the less said about Mel Gibson, the better.)

In 1998, The Prince of Egypt became the top-grossing non-Disney cartoon ever, but because it was animated, the movie didn’t earn much critical or cultural credibility. That’s unfortunate because, ironically, The Prince of Egypt is in many ways more historically accurate than Ridley Scott’s new offering.

Inevitably, Exodus is already generating controversy. Both Scott and the outspoken Bale have promised an “unconventional” retelling of the story, with Moses being portrayed as “troubled and tumultuous.” Critics have accused Scott of “whitewashing history”—pun intended—because Moses and his cohort are being played by spray-tanned Caucasian performers of American, Australian, and British descent. The hashtag #BoycottExodusMovie trended briefly on Twitter.

Furthermore, early reviews damn the film for neglecting narrative in favor of noisy explosions. That’s the fine line movies like Noah and Exodus always walk: If they stray too far from the biblical narrative, they risk alienating their core faith-based audience, but sticking with that narrative might cost them a lucrative mainstream audience expecting another action-packed, Marvel-style franchise movie. Modern special effects give filmmakers a chance to make miracles in ways Cecil B. DeMille could only dream of. His The Ten Commandments may have boasted a cast of thousands, but all those extras wandered through Styrofoam sets. Scott’s Exodus, on the other hand, uses CGI to depict sweeping battles, marauding armies, the parting of the Red Sea, and, of course, the plagues. (Including frogs veritably leaping off the screen in vivid 3D.)

As a rabbi, I’m willing to withhold my wrath for now. Attacking Hollywood for not being perfectly faithful to the famous (not to mention sacred) biblical saga is akin to attacking Disney for not accurately portraying climate change in Frozen.

In Exodus: Gods and Kings, the figure of Nun, played BY Ben Kinsley, remarks that when it comes to the unusual circumstances of his birth, Moses has “always felt that something was wrong.” He then tells Moses that he was indeed saved when Egypt decreed that all first-born Hebrew males be put to death. “Your parents didn’t want that to happen,” Nun assures him, echoing the origin story of a thousand comic books, especially that of the Moses-like Man of Steel. In fact, my greatest hope is that Exodus will expose viewers to the great tales that not only inform our faith, but which have also inspired films from Superman to Star Wars.

I wrote about those connections in my book Up, Up and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero. Given my fascination with the connections between religion and pop culture, it’s no wonder I’m shepping nachas at the thought that during Hanukkah, Exodus may well be the No. 1 movie at the box office.

Will it also schlep a few more people to my Hanukkah party? Sadly, I doubt it.

Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is a best-selling author who was voted New York’s Hippest Rabbi by PBS Channel 13. He chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute and resides in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is a bestselling author who was voted New York’s Hippest Rabbi by PBS Channel 13. He chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute and resides in Brooklyn, New York.