Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Ben-Hur (2016)

It is possible that you have a plethora of free time in late May, and if so, I congratulate you on your leisure in one of the most beautiful times of the year. Alas, it is not so with me, although the light at the end of the tunnel is approaching with increasing rapidity. Still, we do have quiet afternoons, such as yesterday when Darwin took the oldest son (10) to his baseball game, and the big girls (17, 15, 13) were all out of the house, and the three youngest (8, 5, and 1) were hanging out quietly with me.

Mostly quietly. The almost-9yo had been promised that at some point she could watch Age of Ultron, and as the library website promised a copy in stock, we went down to pick it up. All lies, as it turned out: the movie was at another location. So as a consolation prize, we picked up a better movie, Black Panther. As I turned away from the shelf, something else caught my eye: the new Ben-Hur (2016).

Now, I saw the 1959 Ben-Hur (with Charleston Heston and a star-studded cast featuring anyone who was anyone in 1959) as a youngster. We had the soundtrack on record -- a two-disc album, with a commemorative booklet! -- and listened to it over and over again, until we had all the cues by heart. I don't think it's a perfect movie by any stretch, but it does what it does just fine. Indeed, I now have my family's old two-tape VHS copy, which is about the only reason we keep the VCR around. But the new Ben-Hur clocks in at about an hour shorter than the '59 version, so why not give it a shot?

Well. What we have here is something almost but not entirely unlike Ben-Hur, not just the movie but the blockbuster novel of the same name, by General Lew Wallace. Some of the standards are here: the chariot race, the naval battle, the friendship and then antagonism between Judah and Messala, a romance between Judah and Esther, Jesus giving water to Ben-Hur on the way to the galleys. And some things are twisted, in ways that make the story altogether different. Judah's encounter with Zealots gives an interesting historical context, but changing the tile slipping from the roof to a Zealot assassination attempt serves to make Messala not more sympathetic, but a less dominating character.

Let's look at some of the odd historical choices that made my head explode. Right at the beginning it's stated that Messala is an adopted son of the Hur family -- actually adopted, not just "almost like one of the family". When Judah Ben-Hur says that Messala is his brother, he means it literally. I want to think about this, roll it around your brain for a minute. A Jewish family -- a wealthy family, to be sure, a family of princes -- adopts a Roman citizen? A Roman citizen wracked with guilt in 33 AD, because his grandfather was helped assassinate Julius Caesar -- in 44 BC, 77 years earlier? In order to prove himself, Messala just ups and goes to Germania to fight barbarians -- under the command of Pontius Pilate? And why does Pilate insist on wearing barbarian furs in Judea, notorious for its sweltering clime?

Indeed, the costuming and design of this movie reflects a general fake awesome ethic: what looks good in the moment, as opposed to what makes sense on any rational or historic level. I too am in awe of the flowing locks of these gorgeous actresses, but a Jewish woman of the first century going out -- going into a Roman fortress -- without covering her hair? And people, Jerusalem is a real city with real topography. We don't have to just make it up to look cool.

Speaking of making it up: I don't know that I am a fan of the old-style cinematic depictions of Jesus as too holy to speak, but it does beat dialing in dialogue and situations from the religious text generator. Why have Jesus rescue a man from being stoned in an undefined context, when we have to hand the far more dramatically satisfying episode of Jesus saving the woman caught in adultery? Why put in generic speeches about loving your enemy and forgiveness when you could draw from actual scriptural discourses, far richer content-wise? Indeed, after I had tuned out for a large portion of the movie, I found myself drawn back in by a surprisingly moving crucifixion scene. Here at last, Jesus speaks his own words, and they are, as they always are, powerful.

And then, the movie had to go and undercut its hokey but serviceable ending by layering contemporary Christian music over it. This is a trend that cannot die too soon, and I heap opprobrium on all filmmakers who think that a blatant appeal to lovers of CCM will pull their movie to box-office glory. We have final credits for this kind of pandering.

(But MrsD, what about the chariot race, you ask? Eh, thrilling enough. But I just can't suspend belief enough to admit that anyone racing a chariot in an arena could follow coaching from the sidelines, nay, even if that coach does have the voice of Morgan Freeman. )

1 comment:

Julie said...

We didn't love it ... for most of the reasons that you mention. Too much Jesus, too much coaching during the race ... just some weird choices overall. Though the acting was great.