BEN-HUR is Must See for Year of Mercy and Beyond


Moviegoers nationwide will walk into theaters this weekend to see the latest blockbusters. They’ll go looking to be entertained, to have fun with friends or family, or maybe just to pass the time. Many of them will emerge from theaters with bellies full of popcorn but very little else to show for the hours and money they spent.

Unless the movie they’re seeing is Ben-Hur.


BEN-HUR is the epic 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 an encounter with Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) leads him to the Crucifixion, where he discovers forgiveness and finds redemption. Based on Lew Wallace’s timeless novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Also starring Morgan Freeman.

My guess is that quite a few will go out to see director Timur Bekmambetov’s epic retelling of the classic based upon the novel by Lew Wallace because they have emotional ties to the 1959 installment of movie. But you can count me among the “Ben-Who?” generation of fans who are encountering this material for the very first time. Despite my age, I don’t have a benchmark since I never saw the original. With no preconceived notions walking in, I emerged from the theater feeling exhilarated, entertained, and inspired.


Yes, the chariot scene is epic. If you watch the film in Real D 3D as I did, you’ll find yourself literally swept up into not only the thundering race inside the Roman circus, but the also the film’s many other action scenes. Judah Ben-Hur’s watery escape from a galley-slave’s imprisonment in the bowels of a warship, heart pounding horseracing scenes, and even a party in the Hurs’ home offer sweeping backdrops and effective dashes of life and commotion.


I can’t say enough about the performances in this film. We expect (and receive here) excellence from Morgan Freeman’s worldly gambler Ilderim. His is the narrative voice that invites us into the action at the start of the film. And his is perhaps one of the more surprising yet subtle conversion stories we witness.

But the performances which most moved me in Ben-Hur were those of two other actors. I found myself identifying most emotionally with the gifted Nazanin Boniadi’s portrayal of Esther. Boniadi is stunningly gorgeous. But attired in costume designer Varvara Avdyushko’s creations, she transcends physical beauty as we witness Esther’s heart and soul touched so deeply by her encounters with an itinerant carpenter. Esther and Judah Ben-Hur fall in love, but Esther’s heart also loves her people, suffering so greatly under the cruelty of Pontius Pilate. Clearly as a new follower of Christ, Esther has taken her teacher’s messages to heart.

I also fell in love with the portrayal of Messala Severus by talented Toby Kebbell. For those unacquainted with this epic tale, Messala’s conflict with his adoptive brother Judah Ben-Hur is at the heart of this movie. Kebbell turns in a performance that draws us into Messala’s interior struggle–to understand and merit his place in life, to pay tribute in the only way he knows to the many deities of his Roman faith tradition, and to earn glory of his own right. I could identify so much with Messala’s deeply held desire to discover a reason for his life. Without going into spoiler-alert mode, it is the often broken relationship between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala and the final and evolving resolution between brothers that is the crux of this film.


People of faith, and especially Catholics who have walked intentionally through this Year of Mercy, will witness in this movie its very clear message of reconciliation.

We come to know Jesus Christ, portrayed beautifully here by Rodrigo Santoro, almost organically… as the people of his day would have come to know him. He is the carpenter, busy at his craft but not too busy to pause his work to teach love for one’s neighbor or to attend to the needs of others. We witness Christ’s crucifixion through Judah Ben-Hur’s eyes: the eyes of a man whose heart is filled with contempt. These scenes bring what we read in the gospels to life, but not from Christ’s perspective. We encounter salvation through the eyes of the souls Christ came to save.

If you need a way to explain what “mercy” means to someone who is NOT immersed in the church, take them to see Ben-Hur. The film is rated PG-13 for its intense action scenes and stylized violence and has earned an A-III rating from Catholic News Service. I call it a film families can and should see with older teens.

Walk in expecting chariots, sweeping Roman imagery, and the pageantry of a pivotal time in our Church’s history.

Walk out feeling exhilarated, entertained, and inspired.

Copyright 2016 Lisa M. Hendey


About Author

Lisa M. Hendey is the founder and editor of and the bestselling author of the Chime Travelers children's fiction series, The Grace of Yes, The Handbook for Catholic Moms and A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms. As a board member and frequent host on KNXT Catholic Television, Lisa has produced and hosted multiple programs and has appeared on EWTN and CatholicTV. Hendey hosted “Catholic Moments” on Radio Maria and is the technology contributor for EWTN’s SonRise Morning Show. Lisa's articles have appeared in Catholic Digest, National Catholic Register, and Our Sunday Visitor. Hendey travels internationally giving workshops on faith, family, and Catholic technology and communications topics. She was selected as an Elizabeth Egan Journalism Fellow, attended the Vatican Bloggers Meeting, the “Bishops and Bloggers” meeting and has written internationally on the work of Catholic Relief Services and Unbound. Hendey lives with her family in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Visit Lisa at for information on her speaking schedule or to invite her to visit your group, parish or organization.


  1. Good grief! The soap opera duo who gave us the horrible version of Mary, now give us this terrible film. They make terrible movies. More cheese than quality. Our eye for beauty is gone.

  2. TD, I don’t watch soap operas so I don’t really know what you mean… but I don’t think you should throw this film under the bus until you’ve seen it. I have seen it twice and can vouch for its beauty, action and cinematography. To each his own for sure, but it’s not really fair to judge quality on a film you haven’t seen is it?

  3. My husband and i saw Ben Hur last night after reading your glowing review. However, I must say we both came away disappointed. It is visually very colorful and dramatic with lots of over-the-top action scenes, but I didn’t find that the characters were fully developed. For me, the scenes of mercy came suddenly and somewhat artificially when the same characters had repeatedly been involved in violence against one another. Personally, I can’t recommend the movie, but it is nice to see a film based on Christian values and redemption.

    • Mary, I’m so sorry that the movie fell flat for you. I wonder if the compression of such a long movie into this much shorter length was part of the reason it felt rushed… I do thank you for chiming in here so that readers will know others’ impressions of the film. I think for my part, after seeing so many movies these days that have inherently negative themes at their core, I really want to embrace a movie such as this one. I also had the blessing of seeing it multiple times, which may breed a deeper familiarity with the characters and small nuances. But I do really appreciate you chiming in. Thanks!

  4. The new version of the Ben-Hur movie is truly a masterpiece. It is a beautiful timeless classic. Seeing this movie was a moving experience. The message of forgiveness speaks to all. With the most up-to-date camera technology and virtuosity, the action scenes came to life. The actors such as Jack Huston, Morgan Freeman and a host of others shine with such excellent ability. The short scenes with Jesus become a great cornerstone to the drama. This is such an epic and amazing movie in so many ways. It is a “must see” and for many adults grace to view. Roma Downey did an amazing job with her husband in producing this. I look forward to when it is made into DVD’s to see it again.

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