• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Sunday, May 10, 2020

    Os Dez Mandamentos: O Filme (2016)


    A few weeks ago I mentioned a series of biblical telenovelas from Brazil which typically ran for dozens of episodes for each biblical story. The Moses series - Os Dez Manadmentos ran from 2015 delivering an incredible 243 episodes by the time in ended in 20161 and was even covered in The Guardian. According to UOL the series had an audience of 144 million. At some point, the producers Rede Record decided to create a film version of the series that could play in cinemas. Then came reports of sold-out shows, but half-empty theatres,2 presumably due to over-enthusiastic church leaders buying up tickets to give them away - a strategy used widely with The Passion of the Christ (2004)?

    There's an extra layer of intrigue here as well. A significant majority of RecordTV is owned by billionaire Edir Macedo, the bishop/leader of Brasil's biggest church network Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Macedo has been charged with various crimes, but, importantly, has never been found guilty. At the time Brazil's largest TV news website Notícias da TV reported UCKG services heavily promoting the film and encouraging people to give money to buy tickets for others. If Macedo were to have used his pulpits to promote his own business interests then that would seem to be something of a conflict of interests. Either way, the film took 116 million Brazilian dollars at the Brazilian box office in the end, making it the highest grossing home-grown film for 2016, taking only a little less than the film which topped box office sales in Brazil overall that year, Captain America.3

    The film itself largely recycles material from the TV show, which is hardly surprising given that so much material was available. Having not seen the original series I don't know if any new footage was shot, or if the film's framing narrative - which has Joshua recall the events that have happened as the Hebrews prepare to conquer the Promised Land - was a new device for the film, or was carried over from the series. Either way the film soon flashes-back to the Egyptians murdering Israelite baby boys, and only rarely returns to the Joshua scene.

    However, this framing device fundamentally alters the message of the Moses story. Instead of being a story of gaining freedom from oppression and slavery, it becomes about God's "promise to our people that we would become a great nation". There's echoes here of Macedo's 2008 book "Plan for Power: God, Christians and Politics" where he describes God's "great national project" for Brazil. "To be an Evangelical in Brazil is like being a foreigner in Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs...Moses’ mission was to liberate the people of Israel, recover their citizenship and guide them to possession of their own kingdom".4

    Moses' father Amram is shown as a slave, but one who can slip away to attend to Moses' mother Jochebed when she goes into labour - an interesting take on how we typically imagine slavery. Interestingly, the first shot of the Hebrew slaves is a "God shot" looking directly down on a team of slaves dragging a huge statue of the Pharaoh. When Moses' basket ends up in the arms of Pharaoh's daughter, Miriam's suggestion of a Hebrew wet nurse results in Moses being allowed to return to his parents, but then, when he is around five years old, we're showed him wrenched away from his mother and returned to the princess.

    And so Moses grows up in the palace, very much one of the royal household. He is aware he is adopted, but not that he is Hebrew. Indeed as with the three most famous Hollywood versions of the the story, Moses' young adulthood is closely connected to that of Pharaoh's future heir Ramesses.5 As with The Prince of Egypt (1998) and Exodus: God's and Kings (2014) the two men are close friends. There are plenty of nods to these films as well. In one scene Moses and Ramesses fight alongside one another in battle with strong echoes of the 2014 film. Moments later Moses unrolls a scroll bearing hieroglyphics that look like they were practically peeled off the walls of the set of Prince of Egypt.

    In contrast to those films, however, certain elements of the film's style are very different from the aesthetics of America and Europe. Some of these are questions of convention rather than a universal measure of quality that is, um, set in stone. There's frequent use of slow-motion, time-lapse sequences, and montage, often in combination. The film's colours will also not be to everyone's taste. Likewise the reliance on melodrama - for example, when Moses re-enters Pharaoh's throne room after a forty year absence his wife drops her goblet and a slow-motion shot captures the wine spilling all over the floor. But two faults in particular plague this production (sorry the puns will stop shortly). Firstly, the film's CGI backgrounds are often blended poorly with live-action footage of the actors. On a small screen it looks bad, so I can only imagine how it would seem in a cinema. Secondly, the lighting, particularly for the interiors, looks off.

    Much of this is because the film is an edited down version of a much longer show filmed in a typical soap-opera style. To record so much material in a short space of time (and cheaply) fixed, even, lighting is used for an entire scene rather than varying the key, fill and back lighting each time the camera moves. It also accounts for the overly melodramatic moments in the production. And, of course, the reduction of such a volume of material into a mere two hours goes partway to describing the heavy reliance on montage. At times a brief montage feels like highlights of entire episodes' worth of footage, such as the sequence of Moses' courtship of Zipporah. Likewise, towards the end of the film, the incidents between the Sea of Reeds and giving of the Ten Commandments - so often omitted entirely - are presented in a 90-second montage featuring the sweetening of Marah's bitter water, the provision of quails and manna, and the victory over the Amalekites. Similarly it occasionally feels like the cuts have been a little too abrupt.

    At times the filmmakers rely on the audiences familiarity with the text. Indeed, perhaps we should say 'texts', as viewers who either know the original telenovela, or who are familiar with The Ten Commandments (1956), The Prince of Egypt and Exodus: God's and Kings will have more idea than those who only know the first few chapters of the Book of Exodus. I kind of like the way the telenovela draws heavily on the three Hollywood films, but in being abridged in this fashion it also leaves fleeting traces of the fuller work. There's a whole subplot, I'm sure, around the palace servant who overhears Moses confessing his killing of the Egyptian to Ramesses and then informs the king, but all we see is a brief shot of her listening through a crack in the door.

    This hint of intertextuality contrasts with the film's attitude to the text of Exodus itself. Whereas scholars have long asserted that the "finished" form of Exodus was concocted several centuries after Moses using several pre-existing sources, here we see Moses writing Genesis and the start of Exodus. Aaron looks on admiringly and he is even more impressed when Moses' starts predicting what the finished text will say about the (still future) events of the Exodus. It's a strange inversion of the biblical angle on the teaming up of Moses and Aaron. In the Bible Aaron is brought in to compensate for Moses' poor vocal skills: here he is impressed by his brother's impressive oration. This is perhaps typical of the film's highly idealised and sexualised Moses figure, played by the Guilherme Winter. In The Ten Commandments, for example, Charlton Heston loses all sense of his earlier sexual availability once he encounters God; here Winter continues to smoulder long afterwards.  Moreover, he is also more active and virile than his cinematic predecessors. I can't recall another Moses who runs after his commissioning at the Burning Bush, so it's particularly striking towards the end of the film to see him sprinting back to urge his people through the walls of the Red Sea, with shouts of "Vamos!"

    It's a sign of how greatly CGI has revolutionised visual effects that the Burning Bush scene is barely worthy of comment. Back in 1957 this scene - modest by comparison with its equivalent in this film - was much discussed and ultimately the only Oscar which DeMille's film won was for Visual Effects. Here the scene is fine, its just perfunctory rather than profound, spiritual or moving. Perhaps this is highlighted by the reception Moses gets when he first returns to Egypt. Ramesses, now Pharaoh, welcomes him with open arms, as do the rest of his former family. As Moses explains to Aaron later "it was really hard to see the happiness and love they showed me". Only Ramesses' son Amenhotep seems to take exception to Moses, glancing dismissively at him and questioning the poverty of his clothing. In fact the costuming is really on point here. Even before Moses enters the palace there's a stark contrast between the pristine and luxurious Egyptian costumes and the shabby, well-worn outfits of Moses and his brother. I don't recall Moses ever seeming so out of place in the palace.

    Despite the warmth of Ramesses original welcome his attitude quickly seems to change, seemingly without a great deal of motive. This is not a problem the Bible - which often doesn't explain the motives of its characters and, in this case, never contends that Ramesses and Moses even knew each other - but having built a great deal of affection between the two men (including Moses saving Ramesses' life) the change of heart rings a little false. It's perhaps a casualty of having to abridge the original footage so drastically. The subtlety of the gradual deterioration in the two men's relationship left on the cutting room floor. Obviously things only deteriorate further once the ten plagues arrive.

    If the first half of the film was typified by its soap-opera origins, then the second half, once Moses returns to Egypt, is far more dominated by effects and CGI. While the Burning Bush scene was somewhat underwhelming, the plagues are depicted much more successfully. Clearly a great deal of thought, planning and money was sent on this section which is apparent from the first plague. The water turning to blood provides the film with two of its most arresting images. Firstly, Pharaoh's wife caught swimming in a pool comes up for air literally covered head to foot in blood. Moments later her husband dips his hand in water only for them to emerge covered in blood. Both elements draw on horror tropes and the metaphor with the latter is made more effective due to the shot foregrounding Pharaoh's bloody hands in front of his horrified face. The grossness of the plagues is similarly reinforced with all ten being depicted, and particularly the infestations of frogs, lice, flies and locusts. Meanwhile a great deal of the budget seems to have been spent on the seventh plague. The "making of" documentary on the DVD largely concerns itself with this scene emphasising the "flashing fire" within the hail, causing some fairly spectacular, if a little over the top, footage. Finally, the death of the firstborn is shown, not by a creepy green mist as in 1956, but by streaks of bright white light, which prove no less terrifying. The terrible inevitability of what is happening is brought home by showing the moments leading up to Amenhotep's death. The film has stacked the pack somewhat by making Amenhotep seem unlikable, but those present have heard Moses' words. Their surface scepticism quickly dissipates as they see the streaks of light encircling them. There's a moment of fleeting defiance before the sheer inevitability of the situation reaches its grim conclusion.

    Following the plagues, where thousands of frogs and swarms of locusts filled the screen, we get grand exodus scenes intended to look as if millions are leaving 6. The newly liberated Hebrews quickly encounter the pillars of cloud and fire, the latter of which is particularly well-rendered. Likewise, the path through the Red Sea looks very impressive. Miriam makes an interesting comment here about the sea-bed: "its dry". This rather sums up this film's approach to the miraculous parts of the texts. Various productions from the 1956 The Ten Commandments onwards have attempted to try and give some scientific plausibility to the supernatural elements. The 1975 mini-series Moses largely minimalised the plagues, for example, while Exodus/: God's and Kings brought in a sceptical expert to provide an explanation. This follows a similar explanation in DeMille's film where Rameses 7 gives the following monologue:
    ...word came of a mountain beyond the Cataracts which spewed red mud and poisoned the water. Was it the staff I gave you that caused all this? Was it the wonder of your god that fish should die and frogs should leave the waters? Was it a miracle that flies and lice should bloat upon their carrion and spread disease in both man and beast? These things were ordered by themselves, and not by any god.
    Here however, not only is there no attempt to rationalise these supernatural acts, it intensifies them and links them to Moses' pronouncements. When Exodus 14:16 refers to "dry land" it's usually understood as idiomatic, rather than literal as Miriam's words stress here. The film is robustly and unapologetically Pentecostal in its approach with a strong emphasis on Christianity, miracles and prosperity. This is taken a step further in the words used in the supposedly Jewish Passover Seder which stress phrases about "redemption through the lamb".

    This Christianisation of the text is, of course, something that also typifies DeMille's two versions of the story, and as the film progresses, DeMille's approach becomes more and more dominant (not least because The Prince of Egypt and Exodus: Gods and Kings more or less finish after the Red Sea). The scene where Moses receives the Ten Commandments is hugely reminiscent of DeMille. Tongues of fire engrave the rock with the words of the Decalogue - indeed a flaming hand stretches out to touch the rock as the first words are inscribed - and all ten are read out in full. One difference, however, is the way the giving of the different commandments here is inter-cut, perhaps interrupted, by scenes of the people worshipping the golden calf. DeMille's film maintained the purity of the moment. Here following God is contested, an ongoing battle.

    Indeed once Moses returns and orders those 'faithful' to God to rally round, the film then starts to return to the footage of Joshua at the start. The Joshua footage is interspersed with that of Levites surreptitiously killing those who had not sided with Moses; of the people walking purposefully across the desert; and the 120 year old Moses writing a few final words 8. The words Joshua speaks become more clearly recognisable as those from the first and last chapters of the Book of Joshua, "Are we going to submit to God or our own pride?" he shouts fiercely, daring anyone to defy him.  The film increasingly resembles Braveheart (1995) as it draws to a close with the words "Now is the time to conquer what is ours", seemingly regurgitating the words from Macedo's book.

    As treatments of the Book of Exodus go I enjoyed this one more than I expected. The lighting and the attempts to blend actors into CGI scenes occasionally let it down, and I must admit that I'm not a fan of the multiple slow-motion montages that recur throughout the film. Nevertheless, for those who know the story it gives a reasonably coherent version of events, even if the characterisation is a little flat in places. This is somewhat ironic as the telenovela is largely based on building back stories for all the characters. Where this lets the film down is in the portrayal of the Egyptians. It's not unusual for a Moses film not to sympathise with them, but the scene of the bodies of hundreds of soldiers floating face down in the Red Sea passes without comment, despite being such an arresting image. Perhaps it could be argued that this tones down the text of the Bible, where Miriam sings a whole song celebrating the way in which "Horse and rider have been thrown into the sea" (Ex 15:21). Where this becomes problematic is the way in which the film's validation of Joshua seems to align with Macedo equating his non-Evangelical countrymen with the Egyptians. Sadly, the film's dehumanisation of them (not to mention of the non-faithful Hebrews) casts a shadow across an otherwise interesting project.

    ==============
    1 - IMDb. Other sources cite 150 or 176 episodes.
    2 - http://cinema.uol.com.br/noticias/redacao/2016/01/28/os-dez-mandamentos-estreia-com-lugares-vagos-em-sessoes-esgotadas.htm - Retrieved from web.archive.org
    3 - According to Brazilian Film database Filme B. This is roughly $20 million.
    4 - Cited and translated in Zaitchik, Alexander  and Christopher Lord (2019) "How a Demon-Slaying Pentecostal Billionnaire is Ushering in a Post-Catholic Brazil" in The New Republic, Feb 7. Available online: https://newrepublic.com/article/153083/demon-slaying-pentecostal-billionaire-ushering-post-catholic-brazil.
    5 - I find no direct traces to DeMille's original The Ten Commandments (1923) and, of course, one of the other screen adaptations of the Moses story might also have exerted some kind on influence on the filmmakers.
    6 - In the "making-of" DVD the filmmakers refer to the 600,000 men referred to in Exodus 12:37 (and they stress that this is not counting the women and children).
    7 - This is how the credits to the 1956 film spell his name. The credits for this film use Ramsés, so I have anglicised this as Ramesses (as per Wikipedia and my own natural inclination towards Ramsees). Others uses Ramses. Exodus: Gods and Kings uses "Rhamses".
    8 - Earlier we see him writing Genesis and the beginning of Exodus.

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    1 Comments:

    • At 6:29 pm, June 04, 2020, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Doesn't Macedo have any friends in the English speaking world? It seems like a no-brainer to subtitle the series and put it on English language Christian television. I think it's incredible that hasn't been done with Os Dez Manadmentos and the other Biblical telenovelas yet. Subtitled shows are bringing in viewers on streaming services, so there's no reason to worry that Christians won't want to read subtitles.

       

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