The last time I was in Jerusalem I attended a lunch party on a roof in the Old City. I took a moment to myself – as one always should – to gaze out at the epicenter of mankind’s hopes and struggles. The sounds and smells of this miraculous city were all around me, and just as I was about to turn back to the table (because good luck finding baklava this delicious anywhere in America) I saw something too perfect for any lover of cinema: there was a loose tile.
Loose Jerusalem roof tiles are a pivotal cultural touchstone. General Lew Wallace’s 1880 book “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” and every film adaptation since (and there have been more than you think!) requires the Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur to accidentally send damaged shingles crashing onto the heads of Roman bigshots. This gives Judah’s childhood pal Messala the reason he needs to betray him in the name of his career (and also his jealousy, but maybe even homosexual longing) and send Judah off to galley slave ships and Judah’s mother and sister to a leper colony.
But you know the story, I’m sure. “Ben-Hur” is one of the classic pulp stories dressed up in its Sunday best to appear dignified enough as wholesome, family entertainment. And like the New Testament itself, its lead character is a Jew.
Judah Ben-Hur’s Judaism is essential to the story — but in name only, really. There isn’t much that Jewish about the character, and maybe that’s not too surprising for the 1925 silent version (which is terrific, by the way) or the larger-than-life 1959 epic starring Charlton Heston. But this 2016 version is the most absent of any Jewish signifiers, to the point that the movie practically erases the Jewish faith from the story completely.
The latest “Ben-Hur,” which isn’t bad as summer blockbusters go, has an interesting mix of creative forces. Its producers include Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the very square forces behind the television miniseries “The Bible” and its quite poor theatrical repackaging “Son of God.” To that end, one might conclude that “Ben-Hur” 2016 is more chum for the Middle American “faith-based” market.
Its director, however, is Timur Bekmambetov, the Kazakh-born stylist whose filmography includes “Night Watch,” “Wanted” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” Bekmambetov, who also pumps out genre pictures as a producer both in Hollywood and Moscow, may not be responsible for the most intellectual stimulating fare, but he certainly knows how to put together a compelling action set-piece. If ever someone deserved a crack at a high speed chariot race, it’s him.
Rounding out the team are the screenwriters, includeing John Ridley, who recently adapted the Oscar-winner “12 Years A Slave.” So mixed in with Burnett/Downey’s faith-based schmaltz and Bekmambetov’s razzle-dazzle is something unexpected: a little bit of smarts.
But also some changes. The roof tiles, to the consternation of cinema historians, are replaced by a Zealot assassin’s arrow. (Judah still gets the blame.) I don’t know that the changes are bad, per se, but they do cast the movie in a different light.
The story’s meatiest parts concern our lead character’s realization that wealth has made him complacent. His hope is that the Zealots pipe down for the good of the greater peace – to accept Roman rule. His sister is more sympathetic to the Zealots’ cause, which makes things more complicated because she is in love with Messala, their adopted Roman brother. Messala thinks he can rely on Judah not only to try and quell the uprising, but name names.
Trace elements of this conflict exist in all previous film versions but this new one really turns up the heat. (There’s also additional backstory given to Messala to make him more sympathetic.) A head Zealot appeals to Judah’s nationalism, accusing him of being blind to the Roman occupation, and how the rank and file Jews are treated like second-class citizens in their own land.
It’s as if this movie, with a Jewish hero, is terrified of showing anything Jewish on the screen
These are, one could argue, the recognizable dog-whistle phrases used by some who like to misrepresent Israel’s policies with its Palestinian neighbors to its more reductive, nuance-resistant slogans.
I don’t think the 2016 “Ben-Hur” is trying to make some sort of subversive anti-Zionist commentary. But if it isn’t, we have a different problem on our hands: The movie isn’t really saying anything, and is just cruising on fumes left over from our associations with a classic.
What’s striking is just how much potential the movie leaves on the table. In an early scene, when Judah is hurt after falling from a horse, Messala (still a family friend) makes a quiet offering to an idol in prayer. “That’s not the way we pray,” the Hur householders comment, but the movie does nothing to show how they do pray. “Jew” is merely a signifier for “Not Roman,” or, once “Ben-Hur”’s B-story kicks in, proto Christians. It’s as if this movie, with a Jewish hero, is terrified of showing anything Jewish on the screen.
Judah’s mother, Naomi, is played by Ayelet Zurer, the great Israeli actress currently making headway in Hollywood. (She was seen as Kal-El’s mother in “Man of Steel.”) Sadly, she isn’t given much to do except wear an extravagant robe at a party, cry as she is taken away to prison and then look happy when rainfall after the Crucifixion cures her of leprosy.
The Italian city of Materna doubles nicely for Jerusalem, but other than some cliffside shots and some cropped streets meant to recreate the Via Dolorosa, there’s little that’s specifically Jerusalem-ish about this Jerusalem. The 1926 version has extraordinary visions of the Temple, as well as the Jaffa Gate teeming with travelers. The new one brushes past all this to wow you with the slave ships ramming into one another and the dangerous stunts on the chariot.
Not that one should expect too much from a Hollywood blockbuster, but it’s unfortunate that an opportunity to represent some of what this incredible city has to offer has been completely wasted. “Ben-Hur” gets remade a lot (there was a cartoon and Canadian miniseries between 1959 and now), so maybe next time we’ll see something that’s a little more inclusive.
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