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‘Exodus’ is an appealing if decidedly secular spectacle

  • COURTESY 20TH CENTURY FOX
    Moses (Christian Bale) charges into battle in “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”
  • COURTESY 20TH CENTURY FOX
    Maria Valverde portrays Zipporah, Moses’ wife.
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It’s a strange thing, the process of seducing an audience into accepting something. Just moments into "Exodus: Gods and Kings," we are confronted with the spectacle of John Turturro dressed as an ancient Egyptian pharaoh. He looks about as comfortable in a headdress as he might if a pelican were standing on his head. Then he starts speaking, and it’s an unfamiliar English accent — because as we all know from movies, that’s how the ancient Egyptians talked.

‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’

Rated: PG-13

***

Opens Friday

Yet within a few minutes, things start to change. Moses (Christian Bale) and his friend Ramses (Joel Edgerton) ride through Egypt in open chariots, and the site of the ancient city looks so magnificent — with the monuments and the pyramids under construction — that we’re persuaded to accept anything. It’s not a question of believing it, exactly. Director Ridley Scott has simply made us want to be there, to wish we really were there, and to accept his illusion as the most ready answer to that desire.

And so the next time Turturro shows up on screen, we don’t think, "This is ridiculous," but rather, "Oh, there’s the pharoah again."

Call this a victory of illusion over sense, but "Exodus: Gods and Kings" is a victory all the same, despite its suffering from the usual December disease of being 30 minutes too long. This time, fortunately, the weak slog doesn’t come at the end but in the middle. When Moses accepts his Jewish identity and meets his future wife, feel free to take a nap for a half-hour. You won’t miss anything.

For those new to the story, Moses starts life in the privileged classes, raised as the favorite of the pharaoh and practically a brother to Ramses, the heir apparent. Though "Exodus," of necessity, contains miracles that give evidence to a supreme being, the movie’s take on the material is decidedly secular. Thus, in a way that Cecil B. DeMille would never have considered, the movie makes us feel the appeal of a cushy life in a glorious civilization and what awfulness it would be to discover one was really born into the slave class.

"Exodus" takes the proper time to lay its foundation, the relationship between Moses and Ramses. Handsome, brave and capable, Ramses is on the surface a magnificent fellow, but he knows he’s not really, and he knows Moses knows it. So when the rumors surface that the ostensibly Egyptian Moses was really a Jewish foundling, Ramses is quick to believe it, if only to get the one guy who sees through him out of town.

Charlton Heston’s Moses was reflexively heroic. Christian Bale’s Moses is more like a very decent person who keeps adjusting to changing circumstances. In the Egypt of "Exodus," the rulers live in splendor, and the Jews spend all day at hard labor, looking filthy and miserable. First, Moses must find himself at one with the Jewish people, and then he has to accept his role as their leader.

After a strong opening and a sagging middle, "Exodus: Gods and Kings" regains its stride and surpasses itself in the last third, when the God of Abraham unleashes a series of calamities on Egypt and the royal household. In the almost 60 years since DeMille made "The Ten Commandments," movies have gotten very good at creating seas of blood, frog infestations and plagues of locusts.

But the depiction of biblical horrors is not just a technical matter. It’s an artistic one, and this is where having a director who’s an artist, rather than a technician who just wants to lob bombs, becomes important. Passover, for example, is presented as a rolling blackness, slowly covering every street and home. This is the Angel of Death, and when it finally covers everything, Moses can hear the wailing and lamentation from miles way — as one would, in an age where there were no cars and nights were silent.

What’s missing in "Exodus" is religious fervor, any sense that the story is not merely interesting history, but something momentous, wonderful and glorious. Perhaps Scott just didn’t feel it and, unlike DeMille, felt no obligation to fake it. He should have, a little.

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