(Image: the official poster for the 2016 re-make of Ben-Hur, used in accordance with fair use principles for the purpose of a film review.)
Do me a favor: think back to every faith-based film you’ve seen in the past two decades. Any film that was produced, marketed or encouraged by Christian folks because it had Christ in it, or portrayed a Christian message wholesomely. All right, now think back to the ones that were actually fun. Films you’d watch again, not because of the Christian message or in order to financially support the faith-based film industry, but because you had a good time. Films you’d show to your atheist or agnostic friends, people who only knew of Christ as an historic or mythic figure, and those friends would not feel cheated at the end. Now, count on your fingers the number of genuinely fun, watchable and entertaining faith-based films you’ve seen from the past two decades. Hold your fingers up to the screen for me. How many are you holding up?
Bear that in mind when I tell you: MGM’s re-make of Ben Hur, which opened today, is pretty good. It’s fun. I’d watch it again even if I weren’t being paid. Is it the best movie I’ve ever seen? Well, no. Not by a long shot. Is it cheesy? Fairly, particularly in the ending. Is there any reason you’d want to watch this film rather than the original?In all honesty, I suppose not. But it’s fun. It’s a fun day at the movies. I was at the edge of my seat. Everyone did what they were supposed to do to entertain me without completely obscuring the wholesome moral lesson, and the wholesome moral lesson did not get in the way of a good time. It succeeds where other recent faith-based films usually fail, in that it looks professional, and it’s entertaining.
How often do I get to say that?
Ben Hur is, more or less, a non-Italian Peplum: that is, a bombastic and over-the-top big-budget film loosely based on a Biblical or Greco-Roman story, featuring muscular men in tunics, stagy acting, graphic violence, beautiful women in historically inaccurate jewels, and lavish visuals. Peplums were all the rage in the 1950s and 60s, but have fallen into disfavor since then. When a Peplum is good, it’s fantastic campy fun; when it’s bad, it devolves into pornography or MST3K-worthy cheese at an alarming rate. I would place the 2016 re-make of Ben-Hur squarely in the category of a good Peplum. There was plenty to snicker at but very little to hate, with the exception of the 3-D visuals. See the movie in 2-D if you possibly can; the 3-D effects were exceptionally cheap and looked like a pop-up book. The visuals of the film itself were fine, just save two dollars and don’t go to a 3-D showing.
Ben-Hur tells the story of Judah (played by Jack Huston), a Jewish aristocrat in Roman-occupied Jerusalem where everyone speaks English with a snooty English accent except for Iderim the chariot gambler, who is played by Morgan Freeman and speaks English with a distinct American accent; and Jesus of Nazareth, whose accent I can’t place– Scottish, perhaps. Judah is falsely accused of attempting to assassinate Pontius Pilate. He’s condemned to a horrendous slow death rowing a Roman galley by his adopted brother, the Roman soldier Messala. Judah manages to escape after five years and a convenient well-choreographed sea battle. When he makes it back to Jerusalem, he finds his wife (Nazanin Boniadi) is alive and well and has spent the past five years following Jesus and carefully maintaining her flawless eyebrows. His mother and sister, however, have come down with leprosy. They are rotting away in a prison that happens to be in a cave underneath Calvary Hill, which certainly won’t become a plot point at the film’s climax. Judah finds that his only chance for vengeance and freedom is to face his brother in an epic and gory Roman chariot race; his only chance at redemption, however, lies at the feet of the crucified Christ.
As a Peplum and a faith-based film, Ben-Hur doesn’t leave too much to be desired. The characters are over-the-top but largely played well. Rodrigo Santoro in particular manages to strike an excellent balance between quiet humility and eerie charisma in his performance as Jesus, though they never explain why Jesus is doing carpentry in Jerusalem and not Nazareth during the film’s eight-year stretch. The action sequences are thrilling, with good use of special effects; the violence rings true, yet is portrayed with enough restraint that the film is appropriate for adults and teens to see together. The sheer number of convenient plot coincidences is hard to swallow but entertaining. The moral message of forgiveness and loving one’s enemy is laid on rather thick, truth be told, but thanks to Santoro’s dignified performance it doesn’t sink the film entirely. Yes, I was rolling my eyes at the happy ending, but I wasn’t jaded. If you expect gripping realism without a hint of Hollywood cheese, you should ask yourself why you’re seeing a faith-based Peplum in the first place.
Altogether I’d say that, particularly considering the dearth of entertaining faith-based films availiable, Ben-Hur is something of a wonder. It’s well-worth your time to give it a look.