Why Jesus Failed Ben-Hur
The Ben-Hur story suggests that best way to critique Jesus Christ is to write a life in response to his life.
Ben-Hur represents peace in a time of war, faith in a culture of skepticism, union in a society of division, and most thoroughly forgiveness to a people of vengeance. This is not true in its narratival setting alone, but also in today’s larger blockbuster climate. The reproduction of this century-old epic blasphemes our cultural milieu. Such a bold move is not surprising coming from Ben-Hur’s director Timur Behmambetov, who capitalizes on unsuspected plot shifts. But, was this representation of ethics and religion too superficial for us to handle? I think so.
This depiction of Ben-Hur does not shy away from the story’s inherent christocentric backbone. The hellish suffering in the galleys transforms Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), but the most radical transformation comes in his final response to Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro). Bekmambetov implements subtle visual gestures to link Judah Ben-Hur and Jesus such as: their physical appearance, whipping scars, and the cross that Judah Ben-Hur finds salvation on at sea.
The scripting, cinematography and acting fails when it comes to presenting a believable portrayal of Jesus. His character comes off crudely one-dimensional. Santoro’s performance presented us with a feel-good-hippie Jesus, but his lines, constructed of straight up biblical quotations, were not helpful either. Not all characters need to be filled out for a story to work, but the key-players must be robust to be believable. Luckily in this case, the ethos of Christ’s followers partially resurrects him. Judah Ben-Hur’s wife Esther (Nazanin Bonladi) becomes a close follower of Jesus. Her response to Christ and Ben-Hur actually has some say to why Jesus is even a valid component in the narrative.
Literary critic and philosopher George Steiner suggested that the best way to critique a novel is to write a novel in response to it. Perhaps the best way to critique Jesus Christ is to write a life in response to his life. The film Ben-Hur attempts to lend this kind of attentive critique but ultimately suggests a Jesus who founds an absurd forgiveness and produces an unimaginable reconciliation. I consider it more than unfortunate that Jesus was attended so sloppily. He crippled the backbone of a celebrated story and made forgiveness and reconciliation a fanciful, religious daydream.