Not your father’s Jesus

Sanctimony with a veneer of spectacle

Published: Aug 22 2016, 01:01:am

Monday, August 22, 2016.
BEN-HUR. Written by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley. Based on the 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace. Music by Marco Beltrami. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Running time: 124 minutes.
THE CARPENTER MAKES HIS first appearance in a street scene. Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is walking with his beloved Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), heatedly discussing the Roman occupation of their homeland.
    “Love your enemies,” advises the sturdy workman (Rodrigo Santoro), seen casually planing a plank by the side of the road. Judah pauses, considering the unexpected counsel.
    “Love your enemies?” he repeats with just a touch of sarcasm. “That’s very progressive.”
    Millennials know going in that this isn’t their grandfathers’ Ben-Hur. In director William Wyler’s 1959 adaptation, Jesus of Nazareth was a presence rather than a person. Largely unseen, He was mostly represented by a reverential theme in Miklós Rózsa’s epic score.
    In the current version, the actor playing Jesus gets star billing. Rodrigo Santoro is listed third, immediately after Jack Huston (in the title role) and Toby Kebbell, the movie’s Messala Severus.
     His prominence in the picture is key to director Timur Bekmambetov’s intentions. It’s also central to the larger question this stolid remake raises — what are we to make of Biblical figures in an age of cinematic superheroes?
    Context is important here. Bekmambetov’s feature is the third major motion picture based on the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The book, written by former U.S. Civil War general Lew Wallace, told the story of the fictional Judah Ben-Hur, whose life’s trials unfold in parallel with those of Jesus.
     A best-seller, it was first adapted to the stage in New York in 1899. Both the silent screen version, released in 1925, and the Oscar-winning epic from 1959 are considered cinema classics.
     Both films were made shortly after a world war, and during a boom in the production of Biblically-themed feature films. Audiences responded positively to the adventures of Judah and Messala, boyhood friends who go their separate ways, and eventually compete in a chariot race.
    Publicity for the current feature, adapted by 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley and Keith R. Clarke, says it is “not a remake but a reinterpretation.” It opens in "33 A.D.", with Judah and Messala exchanging words as their famous chariot race begins, then flashes back to “8 Years Earlier.”
    The young men are seen racing on horseback. Judah takes a spill, and Messala abandons his own mount to rush back and care for him. We learn that the orphaned Roman was taken in by the noble Hur family and raised as a brother to its son.
     At the party following Judah’s recovery, it becomes clear that Messala is sweet on Judah's sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia). Feeling unworthy of her, he leaves to join Rome’s army and achieve the renown he feels he needs to court her.
    In the three years that he’s away, Judah and Tirzah become involved with zealot revolutionaries, a relationship that will bring ruin upon their house when Messala returns to Jerusalem in the service of the new Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek).
     Judah is banished to serve as a galley slave, during which time he builds up his muscles and nurses his hatred.
    Visually, the picture reflects its director’s preference for muted colours and claustrophobic picture framing. A veteran Russian director, the Kazakh-born Bekmambetov made his international breakthrough with 2004’s Night Watch, a dark supernatural thriller set in modern Moscow.
     Adept with gritty action material, his film’s sea battle is energetic and its chariot race is competent, if ordinary.
    In 2016, ordinary is not good enough. A truly spectacular scene really was needed to offset the soporific effect of a screenplay that has its characters engage less in conversation than in exchanges of sanctimonious slogans.
    The problem, I suspect, is that this Ben-Hur was touched by Roma Downey, credited as its executive producer (along with her husband and business partner Mark Burnett). Renowned as Hollywood Christians, their credits include The Bible, a 2013 TV miniseries, its 2015 spin-off series A.D. The Bible Continues, and the 2014 feature film Son of God.
    Much like their previous projects, Ben-Hur falls somewhere between the robust Hollywood epics of yore and the bloodless Left Behind adaptations. Though we see much more of Jesus, the Jesus we see is a Hallmark card creation, more a motivational speaker than, well, the King of Kings.
    Their film wishes away more than 50 years of cinema and ignores our experience of Christ in the movies. Real transformative “reinterpretation” took place in such films as Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, as well as Monty Python’s Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ.
    The new Ben-Hur’s cartoon Christ is a lot like The Simpsons' Ned Flanders attempting to be a cool dad, blissfully unaware that the kids have been watching the potty-mouthed South Park, where Jesus has been a recurring character for many years. Which brings us back to the question of how to respond to Biblical figures in an age of superheroes.
    Nearly 20 years after Charlton Heston crossed the finish line in his Ben-Hur, 1978’s Superman made us believe that a man could fly. A year earlier, in 1977’s Star Wars, Luke Skywalker led a pulse-bounding attack on the Death Star that forever made chariot races passé.
    For nearly 40 years, film artists have built on that momentum, creating new mythologies with ever more outrageous characters and fantastic worlds to house them. Gods are teamed with extraordinary mortals to battle alien invaders for your viewing pleasure.
    Midway through the new Ben-Hur, a yoked Judah is being driven though the streets on his way into slavery. He stumbles, and Jesus emerges from the crowd to offer him a cup of water.
    A Roman soldier intervenes, making it clear that no such help is allowed the prisoner. Jesus fixes the soldier with a hard stare, and after a moment the soldier backs away.
     In that moment, the phrase “Jedi mind trick” popped into my mind and, instead of feeling awe at His divinity, I recalled Obi Wan Kenobi telling Imperial Storm Troopers “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”  
    Such is the power of the movies to alter our world view forever.
    Back in 1959, William Wyler could give us huge spectacle with a sanctimonious veneer, and we all cheered. Today, the Ben-Hur on view offers just the opposite.
    An overwrought R&B tune — it’s called The Only Way Out — sung by Andra Day over the end credits confirms just how out of touch with modern mass culture one movie can be.
The above is an original Reeling Back review by Michael Walsh first published today (August 22, 2016). For additional information, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Within 24 hours of Ben-Hur’s Friday, August 19 opening, Variety used  the word “debacle” in a headline to describe the $100-million movie. It followed up a day later, adding “disastrous,” “bomb” and “flop” to describe the picture. According to the trade paper, the top-grossing movie for the third week running remained Suicide Squad, a supervillain action-comedy based on a DC comic book. Fortunately, many of the talents involved with Ben-Hur have comic book (or comic book-like) film credits to fall back on. Director Timur Bekmambetov, whose last U.S. feature was 2012’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, made his Hollywood debut with 2008’s Wanted, based on the six-issue series by Scots comic creator Mark Miller. Toby Kebbell, the movie’s Messala, had the Dr. Doom role in 2015’s Fantastic Four, a Marvel comic adaptation. Rodrigo Santoro (Jesus), was Xerxes in 2014’s 300: Rise of an Empire, based on the Frank Miller graphic novel. Nazanin Boniadi (Esther), played Amira Ahmed in the 2008 Iron Man feature, and Ayelet Zurer (Naomi Ben-Hur) was seen as Lara Lor-Van, Superman’s mom in the 2013 Man of Steel. Jack Huston (Judah Ben-Hur) may have a comic-book role in his future. He came close when he played the duplicitous Wickham in 2016’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.