An avalanche of criticism was hurled at Sir Ridley Scott, when he announced the casting of American, European and Australian stars to play African and Middle Eastern characters in his new biblical epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which follows the journey of Moses from a loyal commander in the Pharaoh’s army to the Hebrew rebel, who liberates his people from his master and leads them to the promised land of Canaan.
The veteran director didn’t mince his words in his reaction to racism charges, telling Variety “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.” The movie was made at $140 million ($200 million before The European tax credit).
Indeed, it’s naive to lay the blame on Scott, knowing that audiences, regardless of race, won’t be lured into the multiplexes without a star name on the marquee. Any other director, white or black, would’ve acted the same way, because financing and distributing a big budget movie without stars is simply not feasible.
In the late seventies, Arab director, Moustapha Akkad, cast a Hollywood star, Anthony Quinn, in the lead role of his two Islamic epics, “The Message,” which tells the story of the prophet Muhammad, and “Omar Al Mukhtar,” a biopic of a Libyan revolutionary. Recently, renown Arab director told me that he wished to have George Clooney playing the role of a great Muslim commander in a historical epic he is working on.
Other than the lead roles, which were filed by white actors, Brit Christian Bale (Moses), Australian Joel Edgerton (Pharaoh Ramses) and American Aron Paul (Joshua bin Nun), the rest of the cast was racially diverse and included Keyna-born Brit Ben Kingsley, Iranian Godshifteh Ferhani, and Palestinian Hiam Abbas. The more pertinent question here is not who Scott chose to play these historical characters, but how he rendered them on the screen?
When I met Scott last month in London to discuss the movie, he confessed that he had known only the fundamentals of Moses, having grown up in a secular home of a military family. “My only association with Moses would be the child that was in the bushes, and who had walked later with the mass exodus of the King. Anything else, I didn’t know about. So I was stunned in terms of the way the story was laid out, what I didn’t know about this man, his life, his military background, his capabilities, how he changed that universe.”
So it was Scott’s fascination with Moses’s character and his passion for creating new universes, particularly historical ones such as Ancient Egypt, that impelled him to undertake this project, and not its religious substance or its divine message. Though the director insists that he is not an atheist, as he had been believed to be, but rather an agnostic, who sits on the fence, he did choose an atheist screenwriter, Steve Zaillian, who took some persuasion to bring him on board, to work with him on the biblical script. “I said, it’s a bit like me not believing in Science-Fiction and being asked to do Alien,” Scott quips. “And I said, because you are an atheist, you are the perfect person to do this and come up with solutions and respectful or sensible, or intelligent and incisive views on how this man could evolve into where he evolved.”
And that is exactly what we get in Exodus; a biblical story told from a secular perspective, albeit without giving umbrage to its faithful. On the face of it, Scott made a great effort to adhere to the facts as depicted in the holy scripture, but delving deeper behind the arresting visuals and divine talk, one, who is not blinded by religious beliefs, could sense Scott’s misgiving and questioning of the moral integrity and logical validity of the story and its characters, by subversively invoking scientific reasoning and making references to contemporary political conflicts.
The inciting incident of this Biblical story occurs on Mount Sinai, where God appears to Moses. But just prior to to the divine apparition, a tempest ravages Mount Sinai, hurling rocks over Moses’ head knocking him unconscious. When he wakes up, dazed and shivering in pain, he sees a child (played by 11-year-old British actor Isaac Andrews), though Scott claims that this is not Almighty but rather his messenger, Malak (Aramaic for angel). Irrespective of his true identity, the child orders Moses to return to Egypt and save his people from Pharaoh.
This interpretation sounds fairly reasonable to the believer, but from a scientific point of view, it seems that Moses’s head injury has induced the hallucination of a child talking to him. Even his wife, who tries to console him, when he returns home traumatised by the incident, tells him that he was hallucinating.
Medically, such delusions are not uncommon following a head injury, and we have seen delusional characters in other movies who converse with imaginary characters that other characters don’t see. These kind of people are usually portrayed as mentally disturbed or schizophrenic, and that was how Bale described Moses in press interviews, to the chagrin of the faithful.
Unlike Bale, however, Scott is reluctant to express an opinion about Moses’ mental stability. “If you look at the film carefully, this child might be the conscience of Moses. I wanted to avoid voices with bolts of lightning.” Regardless of what this child represents, he is obnoxious and misanthropic, ordering Moses to commit violence that leads to a widespread destruction in Egypt and to the killing of a large number of its innocent people. Even the animals were not spared from perdition.
God hammers Egypt with 10 crippling plagues, before Pharaoh relents to Moses’ demand to let his people go. But Scott doesn’t resist making a political statement at this juncture that echoes the turmoil of today’s international politics.
Following the last plague, in which God kills the firstborn in every Egyptian family while asleep in their beds, emotional Pharaoh comes to Moses, carrying his lifeless child in his arms, and says admonishingly: “Is this the God you wants us to worship? A child killer?” Is Scott alluding to the contemporary acts of terrorism committed by groups such ISIS, who are murdering the young and old in Syria and Iraq in the name of religious justice? But again, he is wary of ascribing the word “terrorist” to Moses or his God.
“You said it, not me Dude,” he laughs. “I am glad you said that, not me. I’d be arrested as soon as I got outside the door. I think he is more of a fundamentalist maybe, in the sense he believes in what he is doing. In this instance, he believed rightly what he was doing. Fundamentalism is wrong only when it’s fanatically driven and starts to get into areas of wrongful violence, or even misinterpretation and excessive interpretation of what you believe in.”
Disturbed by the suffering inflicted on the innocent, Moses confronts God and questions his callous cruelty. God’s responds in an astonishing indifference: “You have to kill the innocent in order to warn their leaders and force them to liberate your people.” These divine words echo the statements we hear from Hamas or other organizations fighting to liberate their people from their oppressors. The question is: can terrorism be justified in the pursuit of freedom? “This is arguable,” Scott says. “That’s where the anger evolves, when a group is not being paid attention to, but to resort to terror in what they do is not the way to go.”
Political argument aside, it’s evident that Scott doesn’t believe that the plagues are the consequent acts of divine intervention, lending them scientific reasoning instead. He articulates his theories through Pharaoh’s doctor character, who explains to his master that the Nile’s water turns into blood due to bloody crocodile attacks, prompting the frogs to flee and swarm the land, and when they perish out of dryness, their cadavers attract lice, followed by flies that fill the air, precipitating skin diseases (boils), and following a torrential rain, the land is covered with locusts.
And for the most celebrated Biblical miracle – the parting of the red sea that enabled Moses and his people to cross to Sinai – Scott imagined a tsunami, triggered by an actual massive underwater earthquake in the Mediterranean sea 3000 BC.
Obviously, the 77-year-old filmmaker doesn’t see a religious dimension to this story, and regards it as a historical myth, but apparently his conception of it doesn’t reflect his faith in God, for he is still searching for the creator of this universe and the origin of species, as he has done in several of his movies, most notably in “Prometheus,” in which he suggested that the creator is a giant alien. “I think there has to be one,” he enthuses. “I think the question is absolutely no question, there has to be. It’s ridiculous to believe that we on this planet, are the chosen ones of the universe.”
Speaking to Scott, I sense that he is measuring every word, wary of making any controversial statement, lest he rankle the conservatives from the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, that regard Moses a holy prophet. After all, he maybe forgiven for racial casting, but God and his believers can be merciless in their vengeance against those who dare to challenge their narrative, and they can smite his movie in the box office, as they have done to his Kingdom of Heaven in 2005. “I just did it [Exodus] as it was, what I believe it to be and then it’s up to you to make that connection. That’s why we make movies, so it creates discussion,” he concludes, laughing.