Saturday, August 20, 2016

On the Big Screen: BEN-HUR (2016)

I was probably the youngest person at a screening of Timur Bekmambetov's film this afternoon, and I am not a young man. The word is that Ben-Hur is bombing, and I think I understand why. This third Hollywood version of Lew Wallace's "Tale of the Christ" is by no means a B-movie, but for anyone to whom "Ben-Hur" means anything, the fact that a remake of the Oscar-winning 1959 blockbuster is not being treated as a tentpole event must make it look sight-unseen like a poor imitation of both the William Wyler epic and its 1925 precursor. In 1959 there was no bigger tentpole than Ben-Hur; probably something bigger couldn't be imagined. Biblical or Bible-era epics were the superhero films and CGI extravaganzas of their day, just as contemptible in many critics' eyes and just as compulsively spectacular for the masses. By then, Ben-Hur had set the standard for spectacle for generations, in theater before movies. If you had a big action climax in a movie you called it your "chariot race." But when was the last time your chariot race was a chariot race? Movies can soar in so many ways now that they'd seemed to pass Ben-Hur by, so that to remake the story again with such inevitable modesty as one must have in the 21st century must seem like an insult to those for whom the Wyler film was the biggest thing ever.

By now, you've probably detected a note of regret implying that the 2016 film has gotten a raw deal. So let me end the suspense by saying that Bekmambetov's movie is an often-worthy remake into which a lot of creativity has gone, that it shouldn't be judged by comparisons of scale to previous versions of the story or the hype surrounding them, and that I recommend it despite the way it trips across the finish line and falls on its face.

While some people may dismiss the new Ben-Hur in advance as another product from Bible-film purveyors Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, it's still a film from the director of Nightwatch (and, alas, Wanted), co-written by the screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave. It is no mere "Bible movie," though the biblical parts are certainly its weakest. Inevitably it embraces Christianity, but it does so almost in pragmatic rather than proselytizing fashion, its message being that Jesus's message is the only thing to keep people from destroying themselves and each other. But it's a minimalist, theology-lite Christianity that boils down to little if not nothing more than "Forgive Your Enemies." Unlike the previous Hollywood Ben-Hur films, this one looks Jesus in the face and lets him talk, but in the most perverse casting choice of the year the actor who played Frank Miller's god-monster Xerxes in the 300 films here plays Our Lord & Savior. While the new film departs from its cinematic predecessors in normalizing Jesus -- watching the Wyler film I can't help wondering whether Jesus was horribly deformed, given the way one Roman reacts to that face we can't see, though a Roman in a similar situation reacts the same way to Rodrigo Santoro here -- it also departs from Lew Wallace's story (or so I assume, not having read of it) in important and interesting ways.

Part of the modesty of scale that has handicapped the new film is that it comes in at nearly 90 minutes shorter than the 1959 film. Keith Clarke and John Ridley do this by eliminating the Nativity prologue and, more significantly, the whole storyline of Quintus Arrias, the Roman admiral who adopts Ben-Hur as his son and secures a pardon for him after the wrongly-condemned galley salve rescues him during a sea battle. The new writers prefer to have Judah Ben-Hur (fourth-generation film dynast Jack Huston) a criminal and fugitive when he returns to Jerusalem for vengeance on his enemy Messala. As for the Roman antagonist, his is the most dramatically altered storyline. In the new film, Messala Severus (Toby "Koba" Kebbell) is Judah's adopted brother, his own family having been disgraced, if not condemned, for its participation in the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar. Some wags have speculated that Messala has been made Judah's brother to preempt the homoerotic reading of the story inspired by Gore Vidal's  purported injection of subtext into the 1959 screenplay. But given that Clarke and Ridley have Messala fall for Judah's sister Tirzah (Sofia Black D'Elia), establishing a family tie need not rule out any shipping or slashing between the men. In any event, brotherly love prevails until Messala, feeling alienated as a practicing pagan among Jews, enlists to reclaim his Roman heritage. Before that, to show what a good guy he is, we see him and Judah drag racing in Bronson Canyon until Judah's chariot hits a rock and tosses him headfirst to the ground. Messala's own ride having run away, the Romano-Judean carries the unconscious Judah all the way back to the city. Throughout, we're reminded of the almost unbearable pressure Messala is under to prove himself and restore his ancestral family's good name by getting tough with Judean insurgents. Even past the point of no return, certain moments illustrate his horror at what has happened. Just before the chariot race, as Judah guides his team to their starting position, we see Messala in the foreground, leaning his head forward on his arms as if struggling to absorb what's about to happen. Even during the race, the film softens Messala by having him do without the scythes on his chariot wheels that did so much damage in the 1959 race. In sum, the new Messala is an intriguingly, evocatively ambiguous figure, at once embodying the arrogant occupier and the unassimilable immigrant. He threatens to be irreconcilably Other, except that this Ben-Hur is doggedly dedicated to reconciliation.

Meanwhile, Judah starts out dangerously ambivalent toward the enduring Zealot insurgency against Roman rule. He doesn't believe in violent resistance himself -- and for that is accused of privilege -- but can't bring himself to rat out Zealots when the returned Messala, now the right hand of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), asks for help in pacifying Judea. Judah believes in peace but has no clear idea of what peace requires. He's unimpressed by his first encounter with Jesus, who you may be surprised to learn plied his carpentering trade in Jerusalem for a time. When Jesus tells him that God has a plan for everyone, Judah asks how that's different from slavery. Perhaps tellingly, Jesus doesn't have an answer to that just yet. Whatever Judah's plans are, they begin to unravel when he ends up reluctantly harboring a wounded Zealot who takes the place of a loose roof tile as the instrument of doom for the house of Hur. When Pilate and his army make their entrance into Jerusalem, after Judah and Messala have tried to discourage violence, the Zealot can't resist the opportunity to take a pot shot at Pilate and incriminate his hosts. The entry into Jerusalem is one of the new film's best scenes. Because the script has emphasized the importance for both Messala and Judah of the event going off peacefully, tension is established early. It's heightened when the Romans come in chanting belligerent sounding marching songs in Latin, almost as if daring the Zealots to do something. Making Pilate the victim of the roof incident rather than some pointless, otherwise nameless Roman also helps tighten up the plot.

From here the plot develops in familiar ways, apart from Judah washing up after the sea battle directly into the custody of Sheik Yilderim (Morgan Freeman). The sea battle has been the most acclaimed part of the new film so far, since it's probably the easiest part of the 1959 film to top. However, the CGI skies and waters don't look that much less fake than the studio tank Wyler had to use. On the other hand, Bekmambetov's strategy of staying inside the doomed galley, with only fleeting glances of the action through oar windows until the ship is rammed, earns the scene some honest suspense, as does Judah's climactic escape, which requires him to unchain himself underwater from a line of drowned men. Freeman's Yilderim is a more ruthless character than Hugh Griffith made him in his Oscar-winning 1959 turn. The sheik is ready to turn an escaped galley slave over to the Romans until Judah shows some horse-whispering and horse-doctoring skills that will make him useful to a breeder of chariot-racing animals. Yilderim is a realist whose cynical wisdom comes from futile experience as an insurgent against Rome. The most you can do to Rome, he advises Judah, is humiliate their champions in the no-holds-barred environment of the chariot circus. Since chariot racing is for all intents and purposes a death sport, racing for Yilderim gives Judah an opportunity to embarrass Rome and kill Messala, especially after Yilderim makes immunity for Judah part of his bet with Pilate.

The 2016 chariot race has been criticized, mostly, as a poor, CGI-fake imitation of the 1959 race contrived by Wyler, Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt. But I don't think Bekmambetov need be embarrassed by comparisons with 1959 or 1925. While CGI allows him to come up with plenty of new stunts, the 2016 race is also soundly structured dramatically. Yilderim has advised Judah to hang back for the first half of the race, since the front of the field will be a demolition derby early on. Since Messala heads for the front immediately, this means the two antagonists will be separated for half the race. The new film solves this problem by giving each man a preliminary antagonist, Judah a bald Egyptian in the back of the filed, Messala a turbaned lunatic up front prone to yelling "I kill you!" These early rivalries are punctuated by disasters befalling other drivers, all of which sets us up nicely for the main event. Some of the stunts are frankly preposterous. To top Charlton Heston's somersault bump, Huston actually falls out of the chariot and is dragged for a seemingly-lethal period of time before he pulls himself back in by the reins. Other moments are brutally spectacular, and one of my most vivid memories of this movie will be of one chariot tumbling into the seats and the horses running amok in the stands as spectators flee in all directions. Overall the 2016 chariot race works as a climactic action scene, and thematically as well. In a way it exposes Judah and Messala's feud as irrelevant and petty, since all the other drivers seem ready to kill each other with nothing personal entering into it. It also exposes the hollowness of the symbolic vengeance on Rome Judah and Yilderim hoped for. As Yilderim enters Pilate's box to collect his winnings, he sardonically consoles Pilate over the Roman's defeat.  Strangely, Pilate doesn't feel defeated at all, apart from the money he's losing. Surveying the Judean mob that's swarmed onto the track to celebrate Judah's victory, some of them bouncing a seemingly-lifeless Messala about like a meat puppet, Pilate observes that they're all Romans now.

By the way, this film's Pilate is rather unbiblical in one important respect. In the Gospels, you get the impression that Pilate doesn't know Jesus from Adam when first presented with the prisoner, and of course he famously states that he finds no guilt in the man. Here, Pilate actually witnesses an impromptu Jesus sermon after the carpenter rescues some petty thief from a stone-throwing lynch mob. Hearing Jesus preach forgiveness, Pilate advises Messala that the carpenter will prove more dangerous than any Zealot. Violence can be answered by violence, after all, but what is Rome's answer to Jesus's message. The answer, of course, is crucifixion, and since the Sanhedrin isn't shown at all in this picture, there's no doubt where it places responsibility for Jesus's execution, which has been foreshadowed both by Judah's march to the galleys, arms tied behind him, which Jesus witnessed, and Judah's floating on a cruciform fragment of a ship's mast.

Jesus's capture at Gethsemane begins Ben-Hur's death plunge. I suppose there was no way to escape the ending we got given how the screenplay had harped on forgiveness and reconciliation, but even if you still believe that Christianity is capable of achieving those results you'd probably concede that this film's resolution is way too good to be true. Lew Wallace himself would probably think so. For the most part, of course, the denouement follows the familiar story. Judah tries to intervene during Jesus's march to Golgotha but is told to stand down by the condemned man, who goes to death willingly. Judah watches the crucifixion and hears Jesus's dying words, "Father, forgive them..." making an especial impression by provoking flashbacks to better times with Messala. Upon Jesus' death a healing rain falls, curing Judah's mother and sister of the leprosy they contracted in a prison where they were sent by Messala's subaltern without his commander's knowledge; the man had explained to Judah that he'd wanted to save Messala from himself on this point. Yilderim uses some of his race winnings to pay for the Hurs' release. Judah heads to the Roman barracks to see what became of Messala. He survived the race (as he does in the novel, though he doesn't survive the novel) but has lost a leg. He deliriously vows revenge, promising to grow his leg back the better to kill Judah with, until Judah reminds him of the time he carried Judah home after the chariot accident. After everything, this suffices to reconcile the brothers into a sobby embrace of mutual forgiveness, and that brings Messala back into the family fold, and back into Tirzah's embrace, all of them presumably Galileans now. Obviously the writers wish this to happen, and for the film they are God, but they're the ones in a delirium for the last five minutes or so of the movie. It's an embarrassingly bad finish given how good most of the movie is, but it's not enough to sink the film, especially if you concede that this version of the story probably couldn't end any other way. If no other Ben-Hur movie existed, I suspect most people would think more highly of this one. As it is, in some respects it's better than the Wyler film or the 1925 picture. None of them are truly great films because, or so I infer, Wallace's novel isn't really great source material. But as a Ben-Hur for our time, Bekmambatov's film will do -- or it would have had people really wanted one.

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