FORCES from the world’s most powerful nation illegally occupying a Middle Eastern country strive to impose their own relatively new culture on an ancient civilisation. Any opposition (branded as terrorism) is dealt with harshly. Arrest and interrogation methods include hoodings and beatings. Methods of torture and execution are barbaric. Sounds familiar?
This latest (the fourth) cinema version of Ben-Hur (Cert. 12A) reflects the world we currently live in. The novel’s subtitle, A Tale of the Christ, may have been dropped, but the screenplay by Keith R. Clarke, author for the spiritually inclined director Peter Weir’s The Way Back, and John Ridley (12 Years A Slave) gives Jesus greater prominence than the 1925 and 1959 movies.
It’s also brisker. The chariot race, an event taking only a few pages of Lew Wallace’s novel, gets an early look-in before we hear about the eight years preceding it. Far from equating American values with Christianity, the film company is clearly asking questions about this.
Prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) operates within the limitations of Roman rule. He is an embodiment of Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer, changing what he can, accepting what he cannot, but not always having the wisdom to know the difference. It works well that he is not played by a superstar like Charlton Heston.
Huston’s compassion doesn’t rely on his biceps. Toby Kebbell as Messala is the more complicated character. Although of Roman stock, he has been brought up by Ben-Hur’s family in Jerusalem. Morgan Freeman’s introductory voiceover describes the pair as a hope for unity in this divided land. The adult Messala, however, turns into a fanatical soldier.
The transition is played well. Military superiority may prevail for the time being, but there is a lingering feeling that the Romans’ 359 gods will ultimately be no match for the Hebrews’ one and only. But first Ben-Hur has to fall from grace, endure suffering, and come to realise through encounters with Jesus that ultimately love is the only enduring force.
Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), his erstwhile lover, has already been entranced by the teachings of Jesus. “Faith brought you back to me,” she says. Ben-Hur retorts that for him it was hate that determined his return.
Every now and then, occasionally feeling like a word from the film’s sponsors, Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) pops up with an aphorism or two. Earlier versions avoided close-ups of Jesus, let alone dialogue. Those men had a real presence, whereas the moment Santoro opens his mouth, a Brazilian accent alienates him from everyone else. No longer the Man for Others, he is just — well — Other in a way that compromises his humanity.
One looks elsewhere for a realistic account of Christianity. Ben-Hur’s struggle to forgive feels real. The cleansing rainstorm is tantamount to baptism. Miracles aren’t soft-pedalled, but fit well into a narrative that helps us to detect the divine at work in a world sorely in need of redemption.
This 2016 Ben-Hur isn’t reduced to being a tract for our times. The director, Timur Bekmambetov, best known for his vampire movies, has pulled off an above-average action picture offering a critique of the kind of hegemonic resolution of conflicts we are used to, while demonstrating that there is a better way, one that is Christian.
On current release.