Thursday, April 30, 2015

Moses Supposes

There's a brief moment I love in the Dreamworks animated film The Prince of Egypt where Moses encounters the burning bush and is told to remove his sandals because he stands on holy ground. As Moses glances downward he notices a collection of tiny pebbles between his feet rolling away from the bush on their own. That image reminds me of the statement Jesus makes upon entering Jerusalem where he responds to the Pharisees entreaty to silence the singing crowd by saying, "If they were to be quiet, the stones would cry out." I've always kind of felt like that is what the little rocks beneath Moses are doing at that moment. They, through the action of their removing themselves from the holy ground, are declaring their creator, Yahweh, as their authority. Ironically, they, as mere rocks, are naturally showing more deference to the God of the universe than a living, breathing, thinking human being is doing. It's a wonderfully ironic and poignant image and it takes up about two seconds of screen time.

I mention that scene only because after (finally) viewing Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings earlier today, I couldn't help but notice that there were no scenes that inspired a similar sense of wonder or reflection. There were no moments that illuminated anything new for me about this age-old story. There were no insights into the character of Moses, Pharoah or God that made it an especially compelling experience. I felt like I was simply watching a darker, grittier and -- because of all the CGI -- more expensive telling of the tale. The performances are fine I guess (Sigourney Weaver is utterly wasted with, I swear, like two lines in the entire film) but the characters are pretty bland. Scott, as usual, does the spectacle well (the most impressive sequence being, as it tends to be in these movies, the climactic Red Sea crossing), but at 2 1/2 hours, the film, which is about an hour longer than the animated feature and about an hour shorter than the De Mille classic The Ten Commandments, felt longer than both combined, focusing a lot of attention on mundane details that, frankly, seem unimportant (the freed Isrealites traveling through the desert with Pharaoh in pursuit takes up about ten minutes of screen time and devotes a lot of attention to the minutiae of their being tracked, misleading the army, etc) but glosses over other things that could've been more fleshed out (Moses meets Tzipporah for the first time and then a scene later is marrying her; Prince of Egypt, at least, showed their courtship in a song/montage).

Just to be clear, I am not one of those Christians who expects cinematic adaptations of biblical stories to be obsessively faithful to the text. I might disagree with them, but I am not angered by the suggestion that Moses might have been insane and that his conversations with God were delusions (indeed, other films before this one have hinted at such a possibility, but in a more subtle and ambiguous way), I don't take issue with depicting God as a petulant, British boy with -- as my dad said -- a bad haircut, or I am not offended by the implication that a number of the miraculous events that occurred could have actually resulted from natural phenomena (I actually don't have a problem with that, although I noticed that the film conveniently sidesteps Moses turning his staff into a serpent). I recognize that these are works of art and, as such, are expressions of the filmmakers' own ideas and worldviews. The Pietà says more about Michelangelo than it does about Mary or Jesus.

I just expect that they be interesting and/or provide me with something substantial to think about regarding the account in question. Ten Commandments did that. Prince of Egypt did that. Heck, even Darren Aranofsky's Noah did that. Alas, Exodus, though it is stunning to look at, does not. It commits the ultimate movie sin not of being blasphemous, but of being dull.

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