ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
For nearly a century, Hollywood has been turning out cinematic versions of the book of Exodus. There was a silent version. There have been Technicolor versions, animated versions and now, from filmmaker Ridley Scott, comes a 3-D version, "Exodus: Gods And Kings."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS")
CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Moses) There's a sea ahead and an army behind. Ready yourselves.
SIEGEL: We asked Robert Alter to go see "Exodus: Gods And Kings." He's professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Robert Alter has translated most of the Hebrew Bible, including the five books of Moses. And he is a leading secular scholar of Scripture. I thought you would be a good reviewer for us to send to this latest take on the flight of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. What'd you think?
ROBERT ALTER: Well, the first thing I would say about the film is that it's fun to watch. That is, it's not exactly Exodus. It's panorama and pageantry, which is what film does. And why shouldn't it do it? And I would say it's a little bit like a Clint Eastwood western. Moses is a military hero. He wields a sword instead of a rod, and it works.
SIEGEL: I'll put in one word for - I thought the most successful thing - plagues in 3-D are really, pretty spectacular, especially blood, locusts and frogs.
ALTER: Absolutely. And the splitting of the Red Sea is something.
SIEGEL: You like that? (Laughter) Now, moving on to just someone who's unfamiliar with the Bible - of what they might be gleaning here, the character of Moses - how close or far is this from the character in the Bible?
ALTER: It's pretty far. He's really the leader of an insurgency of Hebrew slaves. Before the 10 plagues, he trains them to be archers to attack the Egyptians. He also has a certain distance from God that the biblical Moses doesn't, which I thought was theologically interesting. When God is about to carry out the killing of the firstborn, Moses says no, I'm not going there with you.
SIEGEL: Is it clear that the Moses of the book of Exodus attributes nothing whatever to the Egyptians' gods or just that his God is better than their gods?
ALTER: I think that you have very nicely framed the latter alternative, which seems to be accurate. That is, this may trouble some listeners, but monotheism was a work in progress in ancient Israel. We have this one supreme God who is all powerful, but there probably are other gods or there are other gods that they just don't amount to rove beings. They don't match you.
SIEGEL: Now, what in the Bible - when Moses is called upon to go to the Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrews, he protests. He says he doesn't speak well. He is...
ALTER: Right, right.
SIEGEL: And that's over the years been seen either as him saying, I'm not articulate, or I have a speech impediment, or I'm a stutterer or something like that.
ALTER: Something like that - I think so.
SIEGEL: And as a result, God says now take your brother, Aaron. He'll - you'll be like a God. He'll be your profit. Aaron gets totally written out of the story in this movie.
ALTER: I mean, he appears briefly, but then he doesn't have any significant role in the film. In a way, I would not fault the film for that because - in whatever it is, two and a half hours - you have to do some cutting.
SIEGEL: Now, another relationship, which is in this case bigger than what I've read in the Bible, is that between Moses - and we'll hear a bit of dialogue here - between him played by Christian Bale and the actress Maria Valverde playing Moses' wife, Sephora.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS")
MARIA VALVERDE: (As Sephora) What makes you happy?
BALE: (As Moses) You do.
VALVERDE: (As Sephora) What's the most important thing in your life?
BALE: (As Moses) You are.
SIEGEL: Sephora, really, I mean, in this movie version - it's almost like Odysseus getting back to Penelope in the Odyssey or something. She's not that big a character in the Bible, is she?
ALTER: No, she isn't. And I think that what the film does is legitimate in my view. That it - you know, there's this old tradition of reworking the Bible that goes back to late antiquity that's called midrash, where the early rabbis filled in all those yawning gaps in the very terse biblical story and invented things. So this is a kind of midrashic move. You know, what would Moses' wife be like? And of course, with a breathy voice, she's very sexy, too. And why not?
SIEGEL: Why not? (Laughter) Now, Ridley Scott, the filmmaker, has been criticized for not casting people who, I guess, would look more like ancient Hebrews or ancient Egyptians. Do we know, first of all, what ancient Hebrews or Ancient Egyptians probably looked like?
ALTER: Well, of course, we know something about what ancient Egyptians looked like because we have representations of them in visual art. And they were not black Africans. They were Caucasians - think of the statue of Nefertiti that everybody has seen in some reproduction. In the film, there are some a black characters. And they're servants, or probably slaves, and I suspect that that's historically realistic. And now, as far as the Israelites proper, we don't really have visual representations of them. I would guess that most of them were on the dark side of Caucasian. On the other hand, we're told about David - that he was either ruddy or a redhead, which would mean that he might have been very fair.
SIEGEL: As someone who's made a life study of Hebrew Scripture, does it help to have movies like this which come out and establish images in people's minds as to what the book's all about?
ALTER: Well, I think it helps minimally. In the best scenario, they might say, hey, I ought to go back and take a look at that. But for cultural literacy, I think you have to have some kind of familiarity with the actual text.
SIEGEL: A friend who saw this movie in an actual movie theater - I saw a screening - said that all of the trailers surrounding it were for religious movies. I wonder whether it struck you as an especially spiritual event, or is this Moses as superhero - you know, action hero?
ALTER: I think that it was mostly in the direction of Moses as action hero. I mean, the film begins, for example, with a wonderful battle. And that gives you lots of swords wielded and arrows flying and blood spurting. I wouldn't call it a religious event.
SIEGEL: Well, Professor Alter, thank you very much for talking with us.
ALTER: Oh, it's been a pleasure talking with you.
SIEGEL: Professor Robert Alter's next book, due out in March, is called "Strong As Death Is Love." It's a translation of the books of Ruth, Esther, Jonah, Daniel and also the "Song Of Songs."
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