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