A re-make of the 1959 classic, Ben-Hur tells the epic tale of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a wealthy Jew, and his adopted brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), a Roman.
Eight years prior to the Crucifixion of Jesus, the latter brother, feeling he needs to prove himself, leaves their home in Jerusalem and joins the Roman army. Three years later, Messala has risen to a position of prominence in the Roman Army and returns as a member of Pontius Pilate’s staff. That’s right – they guy who Governed Palestine in the Bible.
Messala reconnects with Judah and implores him to reveal who in Jerusalem wants to overthrow the Roman government. Judah refuses to name names and assures Messala that no harm will come to Pilate as he marches into the city. During the procession, however, a wounded Zealot (Moises Arias) that Judah had been harboring shoots an arrow at Pilate. Enraged by the rebellious act, the Romans storm the Ben-Hur home, arresting Judah along with his mother (Ayelet Zurer) and sister (Sofia Black-D’Elia). Messala orders the death of all three.
Instead of the standard punishment of crucifixion, Judah is sentenced to hard labor in the galleys. After five years of rowing on a ship, Judah is shipwrecked following a naval battle. He washes up on the shore and is discovered by Ilderim (Morgan Freeman). His rescuer plans to turn Judah over to the Roman authorities, but changes his mind when he heals Ilderim’s horse. They then travel to Jerusalem for the heavily promoted chariot race.
With action-packed trailers and the casting of atheist Morgan Freeman, Christians fans of the original were fearful the focus would be on the action of chariot racing, but those fears were not realized. The key moments of the movie are not the action scenes, but rather the moments where faith and redemption are emphasized. At several key moments, Judah and Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) cross paths.
With each encounter, Judah becomes more and more captivated with this seemingly insignificant carpenter from Nazareth. Further nudging Judah along in his journey of faith is his wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi). She encourages him to embrace a faith that is dormant for most of the movie. It is following the victory in the chariot race that one would expect the movie to end, but the chariot race does not satisfy Judah. Ilderim tells him he should be celebrating his victory, but Judah desires something more. This sets the stage for the final movement within Judah’s soul as he witnesses the Crucifixion.
The performances are powerful. Huston masterfully takes his Judah Ben-Hur through dramatic character development, moving from a happy-go-lucky resident of Jersualem to a hardened, bitter man suffering through years of hard labor because of his brother’s betrayal to a man searching for meaning and faith at the end of the movie.
Santoro’s portrayal of Jesus ought to be considered one of the best depictions of Christ. Ever. He gives Christ a personality that is filled with just the right amount of both tenderness and boldness. Furthermore, it impossible to describe Santoro’s eyes and do them justice. They have a look about them that draws one in and captivates your attention. He looks at the other characters in this film exactly as one expects Christ to look at others. The women in this film are portrayed as strong and uncompromising, and Boniadi especially deserves praise for her performance.
The ultimate praise for this movie belongs not to any of the actors, but to the producers, screenwriters Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley, and director Timur Bekmambetov. Christian movies are not popular in Hollywood. They took a story that could have easily focused on fight scenes, chariot racing, and relationship drama and made faith the center point. The creative team deserves credited for taking a risk and not making the fashionable choice of downplaying the importance of faith, forgiveness, and redemption (all of these themes are heavily emphasized). They even made a change to the original movie that highlights the theme of redemption. For their boldness, the creative deserves praise.
I want to also remind the reader that the movie has a Catholic companion book written by none other than Mike Aquilina. Check that out here. Watch the movie, and get the book, and be evangelized to Christ!