There is a peculiar shot before the sea battle in Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur. The eponymous character is shackled, badly bruised and covered in mud, the effects of poor living conditions on the Roman Vessel he has been imprisoned on for years. The physical shape of the boat itself is implied by the inmates’ soiled bodies; we don’t see the cabin in its entirety, which is shrouded by low-key lighting, shallow focus and tight framing. Then Bekmambetov cuts to a mouse running across the wooden planks under Judah Ben-Hur’s feet. This moment comes as a surprise for a couple of reasons: (1) though pillow shots are a conventional way to break up action and add texture to the world of a film, Ben-Hur hardly has time for them. The film is shot in economical close ups and cut without spacial coherence. (2) It’s a CGI mouse.
A few weeks ago, I saw David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia for the first time. Lean’s film is a behemoth modeled after Italian Super-spectacles, silent movies that appear to have more extras than most Caribbean islands have population. But it’s not merely the size of the production, the length of the film or the stature of its thematic ambition that makes Lawrence of Arabia an epic, rather, its the prodigious amount of detail, the sense that we’re in these spaces with the characters for every step of their journey as they battle through the desert, its bugs and blistering heat. Made just three years earlier, William Wyler’s adaption of Lew Wallaces “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” had a similar expansive vision. Chock full of operatic verve and grandiose set-pieces, the most enduring of which is the iconic chariot race, Wyler’s Ben-Hur may be of its time but it also evokes a place, a sense of history between characters and a nuanced world that we can believe in.
This new Ben-Hur is an epic on fast-forward. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, stone-faced, sporting a growl without any of Charlton Heston’s personality) is a Jewish prince and Messala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman, is his adopted brother. When Messala returns from war second in command to Pontius Pilot, he is put in charge of squashing a zealot rebellion. Political conflicts become inseparable from personal ones for the brothers, and Judah takes the blame for an arrow that kills a Roman centurion to spare his family. Messala shows him no mercy; he sentences Judah to a life of forced labor.
All of this happens abruptly as voice over connects plot points and backstory. From the very opening narrated by Morgan Freeman (for no other reason than he’s Morgan Freeman), who plays Ilderim, Judah’s liberator, the film streamlines without any of the intended resonance. Characters are introduced and painted in broad strokes. When Judah returns to Jerusalem after years of punishment, he is reunited with his wife who immediately re-introduces herself to remind us of her role; “my husband!” she says wistfully. A sub-plot involving Messala’s love for Judah’s sisters is brought in but paid off before we have any sense of their dynamic.
Ben-Hur is another Biblically-inspired film post-Passion of the Christ. If there’s anything that connects revisionist takes like Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings with the more faithful, evangelically-minded ones like Son of God, it’s that they all have an angle. Ben-Hur does not. While the Gospel was a parallel story in the original novel, Jesus is reduced to a couple scenes and the coda. The film doesn’t outright reject its religious text and subtext, but its theology and politics are on their tippy toes. Gore Vidal, the script doctor on the ’59 version, claims to have written in homoerotic subtext to Messala and Judah’s relationship in Wyler’s film, and although it may have been tough to notice upon the film’s release, it’s hard to unsee now. There is no hint of homo-eroticism in 2016’s Ben-Hur. This is one-size-fits for liberals and conservatives; it doesn’t own or revise the source material’s Christian roots.
Even as a political parable this Ben-Hur is gutless. The Romans embody a fascist stance, nationalistic and violent, which is contrasted by Jesus’ pacifism. Jesus speaks in nebulous phrases like “love is our true nature” that don’t elaborate on the source or implications of this love. Christ is broadly defined as a “progressive,” anachronistic jargon meant to make him palatable and consumable for 21st century viewers. The Jesus of Ben-Hur is not one that challenges us.
But divorced from its themes, this is still the ugliest and most generic of the recent Bible films. The mise en scène is washed-out with insipid, sand-like hues. Every street, every room and every house in Jerusalem is indistinguishable from one another — inside and out. The actors’ dialogue sounds like it’s coming from a soundstage, and the climactic chariot race is a muddled montage of Go-Pro footage, murky CGI and nauseatingly quick cuts. If it isn’t a CGI mouse, Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur has no interest in texture or any of the elements that make cinema, well, cinema.