tisdag 6 januari 2015

Let my people go!

Christian Bale as Moses
I don't miss a Christian Bale picture. I don't know why since the films I like with him are the low profile ones, like The Prestige and Reign of Fire and Little Women, although of course he is most famous for starting off as a child actor in Spielberg's Empire of the sun, being Patrick Bateman and Batman - and now - Moses. Actually, his first film role was in the Swedish-Russian film adaptation of a children's book by Astrid Lindgren: Mio, min Mio, in 1987. From the very beginning he played matinee idols of the old school kind kind: he would be either a saviour or a destroyer. 
Also, Bale is famous for wanting to be a private person when he is not on the set. He is married and has a family, does no theatre acting at all and he has a temper, which at one time got him arrested in real life. He is soon to be 41 years old.
To his portrayal of Moses he brings violence and realism. Ridley Scott's Moses is a warrior and a killer. He shines in his silver armour, next to Joel Edgerton's Ramses - who wears gold - and is saved by Moses in the battle field. Later, when Moses finds out that he is Hebrew, his first reaction is to go out in the street and kill some Hebrews. 
Why is this icon of patriarchal freedom played by a white male from England? Director Ridley Scott seems to have said something about the need for white, well known names in block buster movies. No one will go to see a film with actors called Mohammed - is what he is reported to have said. What a foolish thing to say. And so we have Englishman Joel Edgerton playing Ramses, John Turturro, a Jew from New York, playing the Pharao Seti, Ben Kingsley who is from India, plays Nun and Sigourney Weaver in a strangely small part. 
There are however two actors in the film that could be there for the sake of realism: Bithia is played by Israelian actress Hiam Abbass and the Pharao's Grand Vizir is played by a famous actor-director from Syria called Ghassan Massoud.
It seems also that for the sake of realism, Moses is not seen as a baby being saved from the first massacre of babies by his mother, who puts him in a basket and lets the Nile transport him to the safety of the imperial princess Bithia. Maybe this scene was too much of fairy tale story for Ridley Scott. When we first meet Moses we see him as a young man struggling with his violent self. He only finds peace when he is banished to the the desert, where he is taken in by a group of shepherds, and finds his wife Sipphora (played by Spanish actress Maria Valverde). This Moses also talks frequently with a young boy, God's messenger, it seems, who urges him to go back to Egypt and free the Hebrews. The little boy leaves cryptic messages in the shape of small pyramids, made of cubic stones. I don't recall any of that from the Bible. But of course, my point of reference isn't really the Holy Scriptures but another film, Cecil B. DeMilles The Ten Commandments, from 1956, with Charlton Heston playing Moses. And that film was neither ethnically right nor realistic. But it was a film to remember.
When we get to the parting of the sea in Ridley Scott's film, it is strikingly realistic, more like a tsunami than an act of God. The sea just draws back, making way for the Jews, and then it comes back in full roar, to swallow up the Pharao's soldiers in a great wave. The images of horses and soldiers drowning look a bit like in The Ten Commandments, but this is the only time. Ridley Scott's Exodus doesn't compare itself at all to DeMille's grand opera of a film.   Still, Scott's film doesn't lack the spectacular. In his film we get to see all the biblical plagues: the man eating crocodiles, the great frogs, the grasshoppers, the hail storms, the water that turns to blood and the worst: the killing of every first born child. In DeMille's film the waters turn to blood as by some magical painting, God himself coloring the waters red. And then there is a green cloud coming down from the sky, forming itself for a moment into a giant claw and then going on its murder spree, like a murderous fog. DeMille's film make spectacular use of color, movement and dramatic composition, drawing a lot of inspiration from the Bible illustrations by the French artist Gustave Doré. It is of course his Moses, and his dramatic imagery, that has inspired the older film. But what imagery has inspired Ridley Scott? His visuals in Exodus are grand, perhaps, but they stir no emotion, create no sense of awe.
Moses and the ten commandments the way Gustave Doré saw it.
Now look at Charlton Heston as Moses: the way he is dressed, lit, his hair, his posture.
Christian Bale also gets to age within the film, wear his hair in grey locks and walk heavily in his long robes as he keeps urging his people on.  But Pharao Ramses as played by Joel Edgerton steals the show. He rivals Yul Brunner very well. They share the same sense of elegancy and melodrama, wearing beautiful costumes in shapely bodies. And he gets the best lines, talking to his first sleeping, then dead child, saying "You can sleep well because you know you are loved." 
Ridley Scott's Moses never says the famous line "Let my people go!" I really missed those words, even though I can't be sure they are in the Bible. And I am sorry to say that Christian Bale lacks the grandeur and magnificence of Charlton Heston. 
When we watch the old film at home, we realize what a master piece of an epic it is. The way Moses plunges to his knees, in front of the Pharao in the beginning, and reacts to the beautiful black princess who he has brought back with him from captured Ethiopia - making Anne Baxter as the Egyptian princess Nefertiri ooze with jealousy as she says: "And what a beautiful princess". The way they all pose in front of thrones and stones, in soft silks and fabrics that caress their skin, the way they wrap their arms around each other, in fond embrace - as when Moses says good bye to Bithia - or in amourous rage - as when Ramses holds his wife, Nefertiri. The way the pose as opera singers on a well lit stage, carefully recreating the pictures of Doré for the silver screen in bright technicolor. And the way the slaves struggle with the big stones in Egypt, and then walk through the desert, the Pharao's chariots chasing them and it's all true, not a single digitally manipulated frame here. 
There are so many loose ends in Ridley Scott's film, although it lasts for over three hours, which to me has a very logical explanation: By next Christmas we will have the extended version, Exodus Redux. But this time the magic of CGI doesn't work. To see thousands of people walking through the desert, or working in the devilish pits of Egypt's slave system, is still and in the long run, best in reality, with real extras and not even a faint soupcon of digital tricks. 
Cecil B. DeMille was never known to cheat his audience on the sense of awe, the feeling of being witness to something great. And this is sadly lost from Ridley Scott's Exodus and every other great digital epic done in our time.
My hope is that it can't last. The film epic has to change back to its former grand ways - or fall into oblivion.