*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Still awaiting a gentler world

by
09 September 2016

Stephen Brown sees the latest remake of ‘a tale of the Christ’

alamy

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.

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)