by Nate Sala
The late Roger Ebert once described Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ as a movie that “depends upon theological considerations.” In other words, the movie stands or falls on theological grounds. His astute observation is one I believe holds for all biblical stories interpreted for the silver screen.
I think the importance of weighing these theological considerations can be shown by considering Gibson’s Passion as well as Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. In both instances the directors (as do many) reinterpreted or embellished parts of the story to represent their take on biblical events; but one did so carefully and the other did not.
For example, in Passion, Mary finds Jesus as he stumbles on His way to Golgotha and He turns and says to her, “See, Mother, I make all things new.” This phrase is actually taken from Revelation 21:5 as God sits on His throne above the new heavens and new earth. It’s not from the Gospels; and yet you see how this embellishment does not undermine the theological considerations of the film. On the other hand, Aronofsky’s Noah changes God’s original plan for the world into being some kind of humanity-free zoo, turns man’s greatest sin into hurting animals and nature, and transforms Noah into a homicidal maniac ready to kill his grandchildren. None of those embellishments serve the biblical story or its theological underpinnings at all. They only serve the Hollywood filmmaker and the story he wants to tell.
This weekend Ridley Scott offers his interpretation of the story of Moses and the Israelites in Exodus: Gods and Kings, and the same kind of silliness ensues. Princes Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are cousins but act more like competitive siblings handling the day to day duties of being Egyptian royalty. They sit under Seti (a surprisingly uncheeky John Turturro) and his advisers, they wage battle, they even share matching swords designed to represent their brotherhood. Of course, none of this is in the biblical record but I don’t think these particular kinds of embellishments take away from the overall narrative.
Moses is apparently the son Seti wished he had, and Ramses knows it. Once Seti dies and Ramses becomes Pharaoh, things change quickly. Ramses seems driven by power and esteem. All of a sudden he’s screaming at everybody to get things done (the true test of a movie tyrant). One of his major plans is to build a huge Nebuchadnezzar-style statue of himself for all to see. When a corrupt viceroy (Ben Mendelsohn) reveals Moses’ secret, that he is in fact Hebrew, Ramses immediately (and I do mean immediately) turns on Moses and banishes him from Memphis.
The difference between Egyptian royalty and Hebrew poverty is contrasted quite well in the scenes where Moses visits Nun (Joshua’s father) in Pithom. The claustrophobic back alleys and dank homes in the Hebrew ghettos stand out nicely against the spacious Egyptian palaces. Ridley Scott uses set pieces very well to reinforce this clash of royal and servant classes. Along the same vein, one of the best features of the movie is its attention to detail. Even from the birds-eye view that the camera’s POV often takes to sweep over the various Egyptian cities, we see a fantastically elaborate display of houses, monuments, and settlements. In this regard the filmmakers should be commended for using…
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