“We worship different gods.”
This line, spoken twice in the movie, may well sum up in 4 words what sets the latest Ben-Hur apart from recent Biblical epics like Noah and Exodus. Hollywood has tried in recent years to revive the genre of Biblical epic (made famous by such golden-age movies as The Ten Commandments and the original Ben Hur). The runaway success of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ a decade ago has paved the way for this slew of new attempts to engage a post-modern audience with ancient history. Does Ben-Hur succeed in this regard?
Let me just say from the get-go, this is better than Noah, better than Exodus. (In my efforts recently to encourage a non-Christian friend to engage with the Bible, they took it upon themselves to rent the Noah movie, and admitted to falling asleep part-way through.) I like this uneven new incarnation of a classic far more than I should, but that doesn’t mean it is perfect. Ultimately though, the utter awe and spectacle of the second act swept me through the respectful but somewhat heavy-handed plotting and dialogue.
Ben-Hur is the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), an officer in the Roman army. Stripped of his title, separated from his family and the woman he loves (Nazanin Boniadi), Judah is forced into slavery. After years at sea, Judah returns to his homeland to seek revenge, but finds redemption in his encounters with Jesus Christ. It is based on Lew Wallace’s timeless novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ”, and the original classic movie.
Almost 60 years on from the original, comparisons are unavoidable. The well-known well-worn phrase “bigger than Ben Hur” is testament to its impact on our culture. However, now we live in a different cultural and technical space, and the new movie accommodates accordingly. The productions boasts sumptuously beautiful period costumes, attention to period detail, and quantum leaps in special effects and CGI are judiciously used to lovingly bring 1st-century Jerusalem to life in all its raw realism. In terms of cinematography, the highlight for me was a sense of what life was like in that city back then, and I especially appreciated the filmmakers accurately depicting the impressive scale of Jerusalem and its elevation. The acting is earnest and respectful to the content. The leads may not be as well known, but the supporting cast is peppered with seasoned recognisable character actors and Morgan Freeman(!). The casting of Jesus was always going to be the trickiest assignment. In the end, they have gone for Rodrigo Santoro, someone who looks like a male model, and best known for his portrayal of King Xerxes in 300. At first, I was thrown by his Italo/Portugese accent and the lack of familiar dialogue from the Bible. However, I can see that the producers are going for conveying broad thematic content rather than an absolutely faithful retelling.
The central theme of hate/revenge vs love/forgiveness between the two brothers is perhaps ultimately even more moving than the bone-crushing spectacle of the famed chariot race set piece. The pacing of the plot is played out admittedly slow in the first act, with my fellow movie-goers noticeably fidgety and distracted. The second act picks up pace from the moment of Judah’s incarceration in a slave galley and pelts along to that epic chariot race. The ending and denouement felt rushed, but still strangely satisfying. In a Hollywood culture that celebrates violence as the answer, the Biblical message of love and forgiveness ultimately conquering hate and revenge is counter-culturally but intuitively appreciable. As a Christian, I can see that Ben-Hur could be a good opportunity to engage non-believers, and I know some Christian friends are already hoping to organise screenings and invite friends.
So, in the end, is the new Ben-Hur bigger than Ben Hur?
No. But maybe it doesn’t need to be. If it clearly communicates that we worship different gods, and the divine claims and works of Jesus are worth looking into for a sincere enquirer, then mission accomplished. There’s more important things than chariot races…