Call it Moses meets Batman.
With the release of famed action director Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” Friday, gone are the long beards, flowing robes, and authoritative gravitas of the Hollywood biblical epics of yore. The Moses here is a swashbuckling, fashionably scruffy Christian Bale wielding a sword with angry, dark bravado.
Not surprising, perhaps, from the director of blockbuster hits such as “Alien,” “Gladiator,” and “Black Hawk Down.” But as Hollywood ventures more and more into the genre of biblical epics, so popular in the 1950s and earlier, the new movies are shedding light on contemporary culture, particularly the values and desires of the filmgoers.
“Its reflective of a couple of things, including our levels of comfort with violence, sexuality, and moral complexity,” says the Rev. Brent Strawn, a professor of Old Testament at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.
Indeed, earlier this year, in Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” the director of “Black Swan” depicted the famous biblical ark-builder with a similar dark bravado. A leather-clad Russell Crowe battles a violent world and wrestles with the imminent, flood-bursting judgment of a very opaque deity.
“There’s kind of a folk understanding of biblical heroes that they’re all just saints, and they have little halos over their heads, and some of the old films seem to present things like that,” Mr. Strawn says.
In the 1950s, Cecile B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” set the biblical epic standard, and though Charleton Heston displayed his own kind of big screen bravado early in the film, by the end he’s a traditional holy man, his armor and blond locks replaced with a long gray beard and simple, authoritative staff.
DeMille’s film, too, embodied a kind of cultural zeitgeist, as the United States began to assert its religious heritage in contrast to godless Communism – inserting “under God,” for example, to the Pledge of Allegiance.
But such movies, popular since the dawn of modern cinema in the 1920s, gave way to the changing cultural winds and gritty realism of the 1960s and 1970s – an era of the antiheroes of Francis Ford Coppola's “Apocalypse Now” and Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.”
Yet Mel Gibson’s surprise smash hit “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004 got Hollywood interested in the Bible once again. Since then, producers have been trying to find the right formula to make sweeping religious epics that will resonate with believers and secular moviegoers alike.
“That’s where the moral complexity comes in,” says Strawn. “The fact that we root for serial killers on TV with [Showtime’s] 'Dexter' or drug dealers on [AMC’s] 'Breaking Bad,' we now have these heroes that are really dark. Crowe’s 'Noah' was like that, and it was so dark it was more like he was anti-heroic.”
“These darker films in some ways are truer to the complexity of these biblical characters,” he continues, “though the complexity that they bring out are oftentimes not true to the character’s complexity in the actual text.”
This complexity often extends to an opaque depiction of the reality, and wrath, of the divine. God does not speak in a deep and distant male voice. The deity is lurking silently in the looming storm clouds or in a burning bush – or, in Mr. Scott’s “Exodus,” a vision Moses has of an 11-year-old boy only he can see.
And when Moses returns to confront Ramses, the “brother” he grew up with, it isn’t as a silent, austerely-bearded figure with a staff. He joins the Hebrew slaves and works to turn them into an elite fighting force to battle their Egyptian oppressors – an effort depicted in an action-packed musical montage.
Talking about his character earlier this week, Mr. Bale said Moses was “a man of absolutely ridiculously strong conviction who also is capable of debilitating self-doubt” and who could even be considered a terrorist by today’s standards.
"If you're not religious, you can look at it as one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist," he said, referring to his Hebrew character’s struggle against the Egyptian empire and its social hierarchies. "It's fascinating. And it's for our times because it's very human, and Moses was a far more human and fallible character than I had imagined before."
In Mr. Aronofsky’s “Noah,” the righteous anger of God and the decision to destroy his creation with a flood is transferred to the character of Noah himself, the one righteous man on earth who builds the ark with the frenzy of a near-crazy, cocksure zealot. And the director included, at the end, the biblical account of Noah’s post-Flood episode of drunkenness.
“Noah just follows whatever God tells him to do. So that led us to believe that maybe they were aligned, emotionally, you know?” said Aronofsky to The Atlantic earlier this year. “And that paid off for us when you get to the end of the story and [Noah] gets drunk…. For me, it was obvious that it was connected to survivor’s guilt or some kind of guilt about doing something wrong.”
So the violence, virile masculinity, and opaque moral complexity of these characters reflects a new kind of perception of the divine, Strawn suggests.
“Our ideal form now, at least in popular mass media, is this kind of muscular, omnicompetent, and virtually indestructible heroes,” he says. “The power of God is channeled through these heroes, and we see these as proxies which both affirm our cultural values while at the same time identify them with the power of God – even though there’s an implicit theology that maybe God is dark and ambiguous, or the people following God are crazy.”