Friday, March 30, 2018

Ben-Hur (2016) A Second Opinion

rating: *****

the story: Roman and Jewish adoptive brothers clash.

what it's all about: Exactly a year to the day of my last review (read it here), I feel compelled to write about Ben-Hur (2016) again, with very much revised thoughts. 

Previously I was very much caught up in the film's history, and even clear associations with Star Wars, and yet the film itself, as I admitted in my closing thoughts, would maybe require more time to process.  I can see now where I wasn't even particularly fair in what I did say about it, and so the time has come to try this again.  Part of the problem, I think, was at the time I really hadn't attempted too many movie reviews, the way I'd already been writing book reviews over at Goodreads.  I hadn't yet allowed myself to process the whole thing.  With books, it's almost as important to write about why a book is important as it is to write about the book itself.  There are fewer chances of other readers coming across the same books, these days, than there are viewers of the same movies, and it's easier to suggest a movie than it is a book, because it takes less time to consume.  A book is a massive commitment.  There are some fast readers, and some voracious readers, but there are also a great many more books out there than movies, across a huge range of topics.  If it's not a bestseller or a classic, the odds are very small most readers will ever come across the same books even close associates have experienced, and even then the way the brain processes books is different than the way it processes a movie. 

All of that is to say, although movies are common currency, they have also, in the accumulated history of them to this point, become easier to dismiss.  They're cheaper now than ever, so it's very important to be precise about how you talk about them.  The more someone hears about one, or the less, or what they hear regardless, it defines whether or not they will bother to spend even a little time on it, much less give it a fair shake, because the common currency is fast becoming the same as books, the more popular the better, or the more dedicated the following, no matter how small, equally the better.  And this has become a rapidly codified rule in the current blockbuster age.  The last thing anyone cares about is pedigree, much less quality.  Value is in the eye of the restless beholder.

Ben-Hur evokes as much its namesake predecessor now as it does Gladiator, the 2000 epic that won Best Picture at the Oscars.  Although there are a lot of reactionaries who've begun to dismiss it as so much hollow entertainment (surely an irony for such a film), it has long maintained a place among my personal favorites.  At its heart, it tells much the same story as Ben-Hur of any iteration: two men compete out of pride for the glory of Rome.  In Gladiator it's an emperor and a general, in Ben-Hur a Jewish prince and his adoptive Roman brother.  The general and prince are both cast aside and must claw their way back, their rivals risen in their stead.  But where Gladiator rests on masterful performances from Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix, Ben-Hur relies on far less tested shoulders in Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell.

My previous review, I didn't even mention Kebbell's name.  I retroactively included it in the labels, as I became more aware of his presence in films that interest me.  In a review I did a little later, for A Monster Calls, just two months later, I realized the mistake I'd made.  He was also a standout element of Fantastic Four (2015), and if I went back and analyzed his appearances in other movies I've seen, I'm sure my appreciation would only grow.  He may not be a known commodity outside of Hollywood itself, but Kebbell has more than proven his worth on the screen.  He certainly pulls his weight as Messala, the wayward brother.  Huston does in the title role as well.  They are reasons all by themselves to watch.  Morgan Freeman as Ben-Hur's benefactor, Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus, and even the usual depiction of Pontius Pilate by Danish actor Pilou Asbaek (you can find him in Game of Thrones, too, and that seems just about right).

I wrongly suggested, previously, that Santoro's Jesus feels out of place.  This is a crucial element of the movie, and even the movie's ending, as Ben-Hur and Messala finally put their bloody differences aside.  What's so clever about this story is that it plays right into the Hollywood wheelhouse, or as Gladiator so boldly stated, "Are you not entertained?"  If there weren't such a gulf between mainstream and Christian audiences today, Ben-Hur would once again have been a rousing success.  I have no doubt about that.  It's the first historical epic since Gladiator to realize what made Gladiator such a big hit, something A Knight's Tale tried to duplicate soon after but failed because it tried too hard ("He will rock you," its tagline, is all you need to know about that), that in order to make history truly relevant, you have to connect it to the present.  If anything, entertainment has become even more of a monolith in Western culture, since Gladiator.  There was easier, widespread consensus in the 20th century, at least in television, but once Hollywood cracked the Star Wars blockbuster model, beginning at the turn of the century, not only with new Star Wars but Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, massive success, ridiculous success, became so crucial to moviemaking that it's all but flattened the rest of the film industry around it. 

And yet, Ben-Hur suggests that entertainment is a mere distraction, a false victory.  That's its whole point.  The famous chariot race that's been the traditional hallmark and showcase element of the story, that's what it's all about.  Freeman's character tells Ben-Hur that if he wants revenge, he has to do it in a way Romans will understand.  And once he has defeated Messala, there's a moment where Pilate sort of freaks out, but by the time Freeman converses with him, he correctly identifies Ben-Hur's win as a Pyrrhic victory: all he's done is help everyone lose, because now even the Jews are cheering the games, and no one understands what's really happened except Pilate.

So what about the redemption?  Santoro's Jesus is interesting.  The first time we see him he's a mere carpenter offering a few observations to Ben-Hur about hate being used as a weapon of oppression.  This idea is what really turned me around about this element, and helped deepen my appreciation of the movie itself.  In 2016 we hadn't yet developed a culture where hate truly drove the whole agenda.  I'm not talking about who was elected US president, but the political reaction, and how it grew and grew, and combined with other movements and started new ones was all about putting up new little barriers of hate.  The only thing Jesus ever really cared about, and you're dead wrong if you thought it was setting up some new religion, was tearing down barriers.  It's a hard thing to accept.  His later scenes are more reflective of Gospel material, and as such they're not as important, except to emphasize who exactly that carpenter was, and why his message grows in resonance for Ben-Hur, and why it leads him to an entirely different conclusion than the one he wins in the chariot race. 

I'd never quite been impressed with the steep rocky features of Jerusalem in other depictions of Jesus, and yet in Ben-Hur they're unmistakable.  There're the flat surfaces of chariot races and the water sequences of the slave galley, and yet when you see what's just on the other side of the street vendors, and the long look down from Golgatha, you realize the extreme vantage points of the landscape.  They're hard distances to reconcile.  Ben-Hur never sympathizes with the zealots who were the terrorists of their day, and yet when he finds himself branded a criminal, he suddenly understands what it means to hate Romans.  Messala feels like an outsider in a Jewish household no matter how warmly he's embraced within it.  These are dynamics very much akin to the increasingly frayed social bonds of our present.  Once a bond is broken it seems irretrievably lost; trust itself is anathema.  All men become cynics.  And yet, Jesus sees what true cynicism really looks like, and that is Pontius Pilate, celebrating even in defeat.  He suggests that if hate is a blunt weapon, then love is the only real redemption.  His sacrifice is the ultimate example.  Maybe  you need faith to accept that, but then again, Ben-Hur itself is an example of what it looks like without it.  It is one big elaborate metaphor, and it always was, and Jesus is included at all because he literally embodied the concept, and died for it, to begin with.  That's what it's all about.

It's a big profound story, and this movie version of it is a sensational depiction of it, and I think it will withstand the test of time, no nostalgia needed to prop it up.  Even without massive initial success and acceptance, I think it will stand as an enduring testament.  In Gladiator there was never any doubt who the hero was, and it's easy to cheer when Russell Crowe wins, even if it ends up becoming a moral victory.  You would never for a moment believe that he could reconcile with Joaquin Phoenix.  Maybe it takes actors with smaller stature to tell a different ending, to be truly lost in the moment when they finally embrace as brothers again. 

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