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Parting ways, in Ridley Scott's "Exodus: Gods and Kings"

Ridley Scott is known for his strong female protagonists, but there is a feeling he nestles into this story of ancient lands because he thinks it's one where tested older male rulers have gotten women who might contest them, securely contained, and where if these men have had a long enough tenure over their boys, when power descends to them, the momentary dislocation incurred when power trades hands won't be sufficient for even an experienced female-at-court to take advantage of. Elder, governing "fathers" are like guardian sentinels that keep chaos at bay; but are meant to crumble down at a certain point where hopefully an even better erection of themselves can immediately step in to keep things generating, rather than succumbing to amend-making, and other things that mean retreat from "your" own business.

These fathers are strong, secure and kind, but not without damning flaws that should mean that at some point they need to exit the scene. Marcus Aurelius in "Gladiator" nurses his great general Maximus fondly, and has kept a confident realm, but is warranted in asking if ultimately he'll be remembered as just cruel—he has launched armies afield that perhaps have spread civilization but for sure have butchered multitudes. In "Kingdom of Heaven," Godfrey de Ibelin arrives in time to offer shelter to his insecurely-placed son, but he came to visit him in part to apologize for having had sex with his mother—who had no choice but to lay with him—and is revealed as someone who hasn't put much thought into how to provision his terribly drought-vulnerable desert estates. And in "Exodus," the beneficent pharaoh Seti is implicated in still listening to gods that may foretell truth but are serpentine, probably overall uncaring and indifferent, and properly not due any respect, and of course in being part of the lineage of pharaohs that have built their grand civilization on the backs of slaves.

But when these shielding "husks" are off, even if it is not consciously understood as so by Scott, whatever these sheltered "sons" do afterwards in the space now birthed to them is presented as right, just for the sheer fact that what they do unravels their own course. They are prepared to beat back other predators thinking of seizing upon their terrain, and make the world landscape reflect, rather, their own dispositions. "Gladiator's" Commodus learned enough about statecraft, about people, from his father that the senators immediately besieging him to concern himself with what they think most urgent, can in fact be ignored entirely, as after a brief delay, where they succeed in unsettling him, making him perhaps think they'll hold sway over him, he quickly recovers so that the first, second, and third order of business actually becomes what he wants, how he wants to initiate his reign. He has garnered enough experience with the wily that his older sister, who is first presented to us as perhaps Rome's foremost expert in deception, can actually become ... scared, disarmed from effectively impinging on him. Balian learned enough about being a knight from his father that he is able to keep afloat a people and save a city from complete ravaging, sticking to his own principles while a beautiful queen offers him such a cornucopia in apparently guilt-free satisfaction that it would appear unaccountable he not change course and belittle as well the idea/ideal of the perfect knight. And in "Exodus," Ramses has been allowed enough nurturant days with his "brother" Moses, enough sincere encouragement by his father to always keep faith with him, that when his mother starts dictating terms, insisting it would be unaccountable if he not immediately slay Moses—the foretold threat to the throne—he brushes her aside, and as much as possible stays loyal to him. Shipping him off, yes, but shipping him off armed with a sword that'll deflect any assassins sent by his mother and lend him a credible future.

You might think that Scott would prefer that the likes of Commodus, especially, obeyed the experienced and wise when they insisted on his beginning his rule by following their dictates. But in any situation where someone is being pressed into making a decision s/he feels under compunction to heed, whether it might be in accord with what s/he might come up with on his own or not, is one where I would argue Scott is actually pulling for the one under “assault,” the one being undermined—there is no way he would have thought to structure a film where the new young emperor, good or bad, is effectively hemmed in. He was going to need to have Commodus find a wily way to avoid the fate he momentarily seemed obliged to, just as he was going to need Maximus to only seem beholden to his fate to be executed, just to be willing to journey with them as principle protagonists. For Scott, to be attendant to others is to impinged ... you feel it notably in such movies of his as "Prometheus," where the captain, the one who has rule (over a starship) but who has never been allowed to free herself from the dictates and machinations of her father, is tight, bitter, frustrated, wholly unhappy. 

It is important you make your own decisions, it is important that you not be dis-swayed ... are not thoughts ever aired in "Gladiator," but the former is, overtly, in "Exodus," and Scott has publicly chided himself for allowing the opinion of test audiences to sway the form of the released version of "Kingdom of Heaven." He put his film up for test viewings and end up heeding the audience's reactions, thereby ruining his efforts by putting a forth a film shortchanged his own highly astute editorial judgment/skills. He knows he ought to have been Commodus, confident even if unpopular and apparently wholly astray, he knows that everything new should be granted the aggressive stance of being allowed to change people before people should commence their assault on it, and kept faith with himself. 

What he explores in this film with the avenue cleared from obstacles—with "the parted sea"— is what happens when two brothers need to do the mature thing and test whether a close friendship that worked in an environment which didn’t allow one of them to really shine, makes any sense at all when both have come to know what suits them best. This isn’t “Kingdom of Heaven,” where when two brothers meet after a long time away the younger brother’s becoming greater, becoming “an actual baron,” is meant to humiliate the older. Rather, the film is sympathetic to the brother who, owing to no other fault other than just being more limited, really would now just be a hinderance. So while we do see Ramses behaving abominably—commanding in one instance a family be hanged—Scott’s attention to him is so much someone who is shedding a friend regretfully that even more attention is put to Ramses’ kindnesses, his virtues and strengths. 

Scott attends to Ramses' manner with his wife, which is loving, and most especially to his child—whom he truly cherishes. When he loses his son owing to God’s wrath and his reaction is not just to pursue vengeance but to spend a long moment with his dead son, speaking to him tenderly—“you know the reason you sleep so peacefully … it is because you are loved”—we know that something remarkable has been chastened. He even works to challenge how implicative and reverberant we’re to allow the hanging of the family to remain, making it also an occasion for a joke where Ramses is intended our full sympathies (he didn’t quite have mine, as the one hanged, a court “scientist,” was commendably bang-on in making sense of the sequence of the blight upon them, even if he wasn’t conversant as to the whole damage fleas might leave behind, i.e. disease theory). 

But Moses is a better person, a much more evolved sort. It shows in his being able to readily empathize with those not part of his immediate family. It shows in his attitude towards authority; tradition doesn’t bide him to defer, something he shows in his taking ready amusement at the silly “science” of prognosticating from animal guts—a practice that no one else is really quite ready to abandon, not even his brother, who only pretends wholesale agreement with him. And it shows in the kind of relationships he prefers, where challenges, contestation, is seen as reflecting the strong independent soul that inspired the birth of respect and love in the first place. 

His wife and his child are by no means beholden to him as their patriarch. When he leaves them to help his people—the Hebrews suffering under Egyptian reign—both confront him with challenges, with their honest feelings, rather than cozy him with the reassurances he was at some level hoping for. When his son informs him he doesn’t believe he’ll actually be coming back to them, he says, “good for you. Don’t ever just say what people want to hear” … and it reads as entirely sincere. 

For at that moment Scott is surely both “in” the son and “in” Moses … to him, you can’t begin your life if you’re overly respondent to those who could get your agreement just because you’re not fortified enough to withstand their rejection. These people don't contest or challenge; they sap from you the very ability to respond independently. 


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