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Thou shalt play up the visual effects

April 10, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"The Ten Commandments," in a new telling, is coming to television tonight and Tuesday, just in time for Passover. It is four hours long with the commercials in and seems at least that long. I will say right off the bat that, for anyone who has anything else to do, if you check in at the end of Part 1 when the Red Sea parts and at the beginning of Part 2 when it closes again, you will have seen most of the best bits.

The producer is that indefatigable adapter of the classics, Robert Halmi Sr., who earlier ripped "Noah's Ark" from the pages of the Old Testament, and wants to do "Creation" next. As is usual with Halmi productions, there has been some money thrown around: Here we get Morocco locations, for real south Mediterranean desert scenery; a fair, if modest, suggestion of an Egyptian city; that expensive Red Sea parting; and Omar Sharif. But though Halmi's hired hands are basically capable, it takes a heavy-breathing pop-cult genius like Cecil B. DeMille, who made the picture twice, or (on another biblical theme) a movie-mad deep thinker like Martin Scorsese to make this sort of thing interesting.

It is in such translations, where business and dialogue must be invented and actions made dramatically sensible, that what one might call the plot holes in the Bible become evident. (It is a book short on narrative detail, though it will tell you everything you need to know about building a tabernacle.) Religious texts do not take kindly to adaptation -- to take a poetical tale of the supernatural and try to make it "realistic," as has been done here, is to diminish it, to strip it of its power. A burning bush on film is just a burning bush, and a talking burning bush is going to be something close to silly. It is difficult to imbue it with the majesty of God, even if God speaks with an English accent.

As seen here, Moses (Scottish actor Dougray Scott, currently starring in NBC's "Heist," where, oddly, he cuts a more commanding figure) is a man like any other except, as the Bible has it, he talks to God "face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend." This puts upon his face a permanently furrowed brow. He also has anger management issues, which makes him not unlike his heavenly boss.

"He can be demanding," says Moses of God to his brother Aaron (Linus Roache). "He gets angry at times, he's unpredictable, he has all this power and yet he has to come to somebody like me to do things on his behalf -- that makes him a little short-tempered at times."

Screenwriter Ron Hutchinson ("The Island of Dr. Moreau") fills the corners with domestic intrigue. He adds a scheming mother for the Egyptian princess (Padma Lakshmi) who finds baby Moses in the basket in the bullrushes, and an adoptive Egyptian brother (Naveen Andrews, from "Lost") to whom Moses is closer than his own kin, who are not always exactly on his side.

There's also a James M. Cain-style subplot, which works in some steamy oasis sex (DeMille would be proud) and finds Moses himself casting the actual first stone at an adulterous woman and her murderer lover (ironically the very man whom he himself committed murder for, back when he was still an Egyptian prince).

It's a violent story overall, full of killings both individual and mass, including the massacre at Moses' order (on God's command) of captive women and children. (It's in the Book, and not much of an advertisement for the religion.)

There's a bit of "Braveheart" in it too as the Jews shake off their slave mentality -- for which Moses is continually upbraiding them and is quite possibly meant to echo issues in more recent Jewish history -- to become a fighting people, handy with spears and swords and bows and arrows.

Despite such bloody activity, it's a long trudge through the desert to the Promised Land. The film has its moments, nevertheless. The parting of the Red Sea is undeniably nifty -- most of the visual effects budget seems to have gone into it. (The 10 plagues get rather short shrift.) Some shots, with Moses superimposed over roiling clouds, seem a friendly tip of the hat to DeMille.

And whenever Omar Sharif, as Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, is on screen, things brighten considerably. This may be because Hutchinson found him congenial to write for -- he is the amused philosophical outsider, wise in the ways of the desert and, unlike most every other character in the piece, not required to gnash his teeth, or rend his garment, or beat his breast -- or because the actor has some sense of how to bring this kind of material to life.


`The Ten Commandments'

Where: ABC

When: 9 to 11 tonight and Tuesday

Ratings: TV-PG V (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisory for violence)

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