This week, Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” came out in Digital HD (streaming now and available on Blu-ray in a couple of weeks).
The convergence of Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” and Scott’s “Exodus” is a remarkable one. Both are startling, iconoclastic adaptations of familiar Bible stories from the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament).
Both were co-written and directed by filmmakers who have self-identified as atheists (although Scott appears to prefer the term “agnostic,” and Aronofsky’s views may also be more complex than the stronger term would suggest). Although not religious, both filmmakers took seriously the challenge of reimagining stories revered as sacred by so many for the big screen today.
Of the two, “Noah” was by far the more divisive, with its startling fantasy trappings, alarming family conflict, and invented antagonist. Many hated it; I loved it. No film last year inspired me to think or write more than “Noah.” By contrast, while “Exodus: Gods and Kings” sticks closer to the broad outlines of the biblical story and includes some provocative ideas, I found it generally less interesting and engaging.
Putting the two films head to head, here are some points of comparison and contrast:
Differences in source material
It must be noted that despite the common Old Testament basis for both films, the two Bible stories in question are formally very different, in ways that made Scott’s task (“Exodus”) both easier and more constrained, and Aronofsky’s (“Noah”) both more open-ended and more challenging.
The story of Noah and the flood occupies just four chapters of Genesis. There is only one speaking part: God (if you don’t count Noah cursing Canaan after the flood). Noah is the only other named character of any consequence. (His three sons have names, but they’re basically invisible.)
Throughout the flood story, Noah merely executes God’s orders; no sense of personality, emotions, or independent action emerges. The story offers very little hint of the nature of the evil occasioning the flood (beyond vague references to violence), and no hint of the people in question.
The story of Moses and the Exodus couldn’t be more different. Taking up the first 15 chapters of Exodus, the story offers a sustained dramatic conflict, rooted in specific moral evils (slavery and the slaughter of the innocents), with a clearly defined protagonist and antagonist. It includes complex characters who act and speak in complicated ways, well-developed rising action of a particularly cinematic nature (the plagues), and a stunning rolling climax (Passover night, the departure from Egypt, and the parting of the Red Sea).
The story of the Exodus, in a word, is the most cinema-ready story in the whole Bible, which is one reason it has been so often adapted. The story of the flood, on the other hand, must be imaginatively expanded and shaped to present any kind of satisfying movie experience.
Another difference is that the flood story, set in the primeval history of Genesis 1 to 11, has no historical or cultural markers placing it in any known historical context. By contrast, the story of the Exodus is set in Egypt of the Pharaohs, at a fairly specific point in history. This means Scott had to portray a known culture, while Aronofsky had more liberty in imagining and depicting the antediluvian world as a far more fantastic place than we might expect.
The filmmakers’ relationships to their material
There’s no getting around the fact that Aronofsky’s “Noah” was a passion project in a way that Scott’s “Exodus” wasn’t.
Aronofsky, who is Jewish, has taken a lifelong creative interest in the flood story, from a poem he wrote in 7th grade about the dove flying back to the ark to a graphic novel version of the story he co-wrote with Ari Handel, on which the film is based. He and Handel immersed themselves in rabbinic and other Jewish sources as well as other flood myths from around the world.
Scott certainly took seriously the challenge of retelling the story of the Exodus, but nothing indicates it was ever a story he obsessed over the way Aronofsky did that of Noah. The upshot is that Noah is a very personal, idiosyncratic film — one that only Aronofsky could have made. Exodus, although not like any Moses movie to date, isn’t the same kind of deeply personal document.
How God is experienced
Both films seek to depict God’s presence and self-revelation in credible ways that go beyond a disembodied voice from the sky.
In “Noah,” God speaks through symbolic dreams and visions that must be interpreted in light of previous revelation. In “Exodus,” Moses encounters a young boy, a “messenger,” that only he sees, who speaks for God. (The credits identify him as “Malak,” the Hebrew word for “messenger,” usually translated “angel.” The story of the burning bush in Exodus 3 does mention an angel speaking to Moses.)
Both of these approaches leave room for doubt. Are the dreams and visions really messages from God? Has Noah interpreted them correctly? (He doesn’t always.) Is Moses merely hallucinating due to a concussion after hitting his head? These are distinctly modern questions, but art is always as much about the time and place in which it was made as whatever time and place it depicts or imagines.
In both cases, too, the hero’s sense of God’s will is at least broadly vindicated by miraculous or providential interventions, from the Edenic forest that bursts from the ground to provide wood for the ark and the convergence of animals to the ark, to the plagues striking the Egyptians and the waters sweeping aside to let the Hebrews pass and drowning the Egyptian armies.
How God is thought of
One of the most striking contrasts between the two films has to do with the two protagonists’ very divergent conceptions of God.
Noah lives at the dawn of the world, at a time when “the Creator” is universally acknowledged by all — even by villainous Tubal-Cain, who says man has been abandoned by his Maker.
Noah understands the Creator to be sovereign, his will absolute. Deeply troubled by the corruption of sin and violence, Noah deems that it would be simple justice for the Creator to wipe out mankind entirely. For Noah, there can be no question of challenging or resisting the Creator’s will, however difficult it may be to discern or to follow.
Moses’ spirituality is completely different. Raised in the court of Pharaoh, Moses is familiar with a wide pantheon of gods, all of whom he takes as lightly as he does the covenant deity of the Hebrews.
When he encounters the “messenger” at the burning bush, Moses recognizes that there is at least one deity in heaven whom he must take seriously. Still, that this deity is the one true God — the eternal creator of all that is, the Lord to whom every knee must bend — is not an idea Moses seems ever to fully grasp.
Instead, Moses’ relationship with God sometimes shades into constructive disagreement. Moses supports the overall program of liberating the Hebrews, but doesn’t always agree with how God goes about it.
This tension culminates in the last scene with Malak, the messenger, expressing satisfaction that even though Moses doesn’t always agree with him, “here we are, talking.” It’s a paean to what could be called “cafeteria faith” or “loyal dissent,” of the premise that one can be a man of God (or, by extension, a “good Catholic”) despite some dissenting opinions.
Of the two, I find the approach of “Noah” more provocative and challenging to 21st-century sensibilities, whereas the vision in “Exodus” is more flattering to our era. Yet Scott’s storyline at least has the virtue of highlighting how Moses’ experience and understanding of God in a pagan Egyptian context could have been very different from our own, or from what we would expect.
Ritual and sacrifice
One area in which both films fall short of the biblical tales is in the area of sacrifice and ritual.
In the Bible, sacrifice and ritual play a prominent part at the climax of both stories. After the flood, Noah builds an altar and offers sacrifices from the “clean” animals who came onto the ark by sevens rather than by pairs. The Exodus story reaches a climax with the 10th plague and, crucially, the first Passover.
Aronofsky’s “Noah” skips the sacrifice, jumping right to Noah getting drunk. “Exodus” depicts the Hebrews surviving the 10th plague thanks to the blood on the doorposts, but glosses over the Passover sacrifice and meal as ritual acts.
Both films do use ritual in other ways. “Noah” enacts a funerary rite for an animal killed by lawless men (to whom God has not yet given permission to kill and eat animals). Moses and Zipporah are married by Zipporah’s father, the priest Jethro, in a ceremonial wedding rite.
Yet with respect to the important role ritual and sacrifice play in the biblical stories themselves, both films miss the mark. In this respect, whatever other assumptions or common ideas these films challenge, both reflect the sensibilities of our informal, desacralized era.