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Stranger in a Strange Land: Peter T. Chattaway

A VERY Strange Land

Editor's Note: This is a guest column by Peter T. Chattaway, who has seen more "biblical films" than anyone I know—more, possibly, than anyone else on the planet.

Early on in Exodus: Gods and Kings, there's a scene in which Moses (Christian Bale), who is still an Egyptian prince oblivious to his Hebrew heritage, confronts an Egyptian viceroy named Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), who is supposed to be building a new city for the Pharaoh but seems to have diverted some of the funds to support his own luxurious lifestyle. Hegep tries to deflect Moses' attention by pointing to the troublesome Hebrew slaves, claiming that he needs more resources to deal with them. As proof of how rebellious these Hebrews are, Hegep says, "Do you know what 'Israelite' means in their own language? 'He who fights with God.' " An annoyed Moses replies, " 'He who wrestles with God.' There's a difference."

It's a key distinction, and one that applies just as much to Ridley Scott's film. Scott, whose self-identification over the years has wavered between "agnostic" and "atheist"—and whose dim view of religion in general has been made abundantly clear in the way he has promoted films like Prometheus and Kingdom of Heaven[1]—doesn't reject the concept or even goodness of God altogether, at least not within this particular story. But he's troubled by God. He's troubled by how God could let people like the Israelites suffer for centuries. And he's troubled by the violence that follows when God does decide to intervene on behalf of the oppressed. And so he wrestles with God, as does the Moses of his film.

That struggle makes Exodus: Gods and Kings interesting in ways that the viewer might not have expected. Indeed, the opening title cards—which past Scott-directed epics have used to establish that their stories take place in a pre-modern world clouded by superstition—are ...

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