“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”, runs the famous first line of an otherwise little-read 1950s novel. Of course, this is part of the appeal the past holds for us; historical dramas and ancient epics are popular partly for their exoticism, that thrill of how we used to live, who we used to be and are no longer.
But there’s also an unreality to it. It’s hard to really imagine ourselves as Elizabethans, let alone ancient Greeks or Egyptians. For those of us who aren’t professional historians, the triumphs and disasters of the past, even the most meticulously documented of them, tend to assume more of the characteristics of myth than of everyday life. This is especially true of the extraordinary: it’s easy to dismiss, or (what amounts to the same thing) to accept with a shrug the shocking or truly dramatic events of history, because everything about the distant past has a touch of fantasy to it.
This is the dilemma of the filmmaker who wants to present the ancient world in realistic mode – and it’s only exacerbated if the story he or she wants to tell comes straight out of the Bible. Even the faithful struggle with the gap between the long-ago-and-far-away of Old Testament history and our own world, so what of the secular movie-goer?
Ridley Scott’s Exodus plays like a series of experimental answers to specifically this problem. Scott’s Egypt is as grand and exotic – as sandy and as decadent – as ever; but the 4000-year-old story of Moses leading the Israelite people out of slavery in Egypt is newly translated into modern secularese.
This is Exodus for the doubters, with Moses himself as lead sceptic. The film opens on him harrumphing his way through an Egyptian entrail-reading ritual, airily dismissing prophecies and omens, master of his own fate. The humble, uncertain, even timid Moses of the Bible story exchanges his staff for a sword, and becomes affable statesman-turned-scruffy guerrilla fighter over the course of the first hour or so of the film.
His encounters with God circumvent all our expectations about the booming voice of a patriarchal sky-god. The strangely burning bush that marks Moses’ first brush with the God of his ancestors is in this version accompanied by a violent storm and a head injury; we can’t be certain at this stage that the conversation is anything more than an hallucination.
And, in a decided swerve away from convention, this infinitely mighty deity appears in the form of a young boy, with a diffident British accent. The choice seems at first blush a pretty creepy one, savouring strongly of that horror movie staple, the uncanny child; but the wisdom of eschewing the usual bearded male voiceover (we just know that voice comes complete with beard) becomes steadily apparent. Like most of the liberties this movie takes with the biblical account, God-as-child turns the clichés and preconceptions on their heads and makes it possible to watch the old story in a way that doesn’t come pre-packaged.
The same goes for the film’s mildly atrocious anachronisms. From Moses’ feel-good secular humanism – he tells his wife that he wants their son to grow up “believing in himself” – to laughable exchanges between Moses and Pharaoh about workers’ rights and economic rationalism, it seems contextual appropriateness has been sacrificed at times to relatability – but not without a payoff. As Moses mounts a series of guerrilla attacks on Pharaoh’s oppressive regime, and the police state responds with indiscriminate hangings, the Israelites’ situation slides into horrifying focus for the modern viewer. We see what the experience (not merely the spectacle) of these events would have been like.
The plagues, too, receive a naturalistic makeover. God isn’t exactly evacuated from the machinery of these (visually spectacular) disasters; but the sophisticated Egyptians respond as modern Westerners would – as we so often do to the miraculous or supernatural – by finding reasons to explain them away. Pharaoh’s advisers talk up the biological and medical basis for plagues of frogs and flies and dying cattle with the debunking zeal of a New Atheist.
Ultimately, though, this God can’t be excluded or ignored. Moses may doubt him early on, or disagree with him later; the first several plagues may lend themselves to scientific explanation; but with the chilling death of the firstborn, both Pharaoh and his secular self-belief crumble. Ridley Scott’s is a complex and not particularly likeable God, but the film takes pains to ensure that he can’t just be relegated to the comfortable category of myth.
This is a sceptic’s Exodus; but that doesn’t mean that scepticism wins out.