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‘Exodus’ is a new take on an old story

Fourteen years ago, Ridley Scott directed a 2 1/2-hour drama set many centuries before the present along the Mediterranean crescent. A dying ruler gave the hero his blessing as a surrogate son but passed the throne unwillingly to his real son, an insecure and unstable man. The new ruler banished the hero, who returned to his native city after long struggles and gained the respect of its people.

“Gladiator” won five Oscars, including best picture. So why not make it again? Change “Maximus” to “Moses,” give your protagonist an Egyptian costume instead of a Roman one, and you’re good to go.

Yet there’s a key difference. “Gladiator” follows its template carefully, offering few surprises. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” consistently contradicts our expectations of how the famous story ought to go and how its main figure ought to behave.

I’ll let someone else discuss 1) the near-absence of people of color in this story about the Middle East, and 2) the countless differences from the Old Testament narrative, and 3) the virtual excision of Aaron, Moses’ brother and an integral part of the biblical story. (Moses was the soul of the Jewish people in that telling, Aaron their public voice.)

Instead, I’ll say this: I appreciate Scott’s idea that Moses might be a reluctant leader, a man unwilling to be complicit in the suffering of an Egyptian people to whom he’d belonged for so long. (Few actors suffer, teeth clenched and brow furrowed, like Christian Bale.)

In this version, General Moses saves the life of the pharaoh’s son on the battlefield. Rhamses (Joel Edgerton) is grateful but guarded, because he knows his dying father would entrust Egypt to Moses if he could. (John Turturro plays the old pharaoh in one of many odd pieces of casting.)

When Nun (Ben Kingsley) informs Moses of his Jewish heritage, the warrior refuses to believe him, but Rhamses does believe and exiles his friend. Moses marries a shepherdess (Maria Valverde) and fathers a son in a distant desert. After nine years, he has an encounter with God that convinces him to return to Memphis and free the enslaved Hebrews.

Scott and his four screenwriters make some strange choices. Moses gets divine instructions from a boy no one else can see, a kid who looks and sounds like a 12-year-old Anthony Hopkins. When the plagues begin, the Memphians’ water turns to blood because giant crocodiles dismember fishermen.

The Red Sea sequence doesn’t begin with Moses parting the water; instead, he wades into it with the fleeing Hebrews, convinced God will part it for them. That’s the essence of his character: He begins with no faith even in Egypt’s gods, submits to the Hebrews’ deity after a miracle (the burning bush) and accepts his destiny grudgingly.

Why, he wonders, must all the firstborn children of the Egyptians be slain, including the children of old friends? When Rhamses accuses him of answering to a brutal God, Moses has no rejoinder. He obeys Jehovah because he sees no other way to end 400 years of slavery.

The movie belongs to our era, both in bad ways (dialogue that’s too modern) and good. When Rhamses claims slavery can’t be abolished yet because Egypt’s economy depends on unpaid workers, we think of politicians who urge people with just grievances to be patient and let the big boss address those in his good time.

We can read the Bible to get the familiar and comforting view that has prevailed for millennia. This version asks us to examine our beliefs anew, in the light of our own lives.

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