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    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


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    Monday, August 02, 2010

    Jesus in Ben Hur 2010

    As I mentioned in yesterday's review of Ben Hur, the 2010 version gives much more attention to Jesus' words than the famous 1959 version. I wanted to explore this a bit more fully than seemed appropriate in the review, so I decided to turn it into a separate post.

    The clearest instance of this stronger focus on Jesus' teaching occurs as Judah rides towards Jerusalem. As he is approaches the city, there on the hill we see a man (clearly Jesus) teaching a smallish gathering of listeners (as pictured above), including Judah's former fiancé, Esther. Despite the thundering hooves of Judah's horse we are able to hear the following words, most of which are taken from the Sermon on the Mount:
    ...and yet forgive them? Once? Seven times? No not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven. (Matt 18:21-22)

    We’ve heard it said "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". I say to you, do not fight those that wish to harm you. If someone hits your left cheek, offer them the right. If they ask for your tunic, give them your cloak as well. If they say walk this mile with me walk two miles. (Matt 5:38-42).

    As you’ve heard it said, "you should love your neighbour and hate your enemy". But I say to you "love your enemies, and bless those who curse you". (Matt 5:43-44).
    The camera then follows Judah Ben Hur into the city, and then it cuts to Esther who has returned from the sermon. She now live with Judah's former employee David, who mocks Jesus' seemingly-well-known teaching.
    David - "Blessed are the weak. The poor shall inherit the earth."
    Esther - "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." (Matt 5:3-10)
    This final exchange obviously isn't Jesus talking himself, and includes a deliberate mis-quote, but its inclusion is also important. Going back to the earlier quote from David Wyler this is a great example of "spirituality...[but not] relating it to a specific religion": if you want to see God, all you must do is be pure in heart. Thus it's when Judah lays aside his revenge, forgives Messala and is reconciled to Esther that he sees God as portrayed by the white flash of light. And it's that same flash of light, not a miracle directly related to the cross, which heals his mother and sister.

    The misquote is also interesting because it's an English pun, based on an assumed similarity between meekness and weakness. I'm not sure it would have worked in Aramaic.

    The words that we actually hear Jesus speak obviously have a very direct bearing on the major themes of the film, revenge and forgiveness. This is also reflected in the phrase we hear Jesus say twice - "Forgive them for they don't know what they are doing". This occurs once at the start of the film (as Judah looks like he is about to be crucified) and once at the end (as Jesus is about to be crucified). It's taken from Luke 23:34, but, significantly, it drops the word Father from the start. The film is not about our need to be forgiven by God, but about the importance of us forgiving one another. Having this phrase repeated does raise the question of what would have happened if Judah had heeded Jesus' advice first time around. Certainly most of his troubles would have remained, and perhaps Messala would still be alive, but it's also possible, as the 1959 version suggests more strongly, that without his drive for revenge he may never have been reunited with his mother, sister and wife.



    • At 3:45 pm, September 14, 2011, Blogger Roll Cage Mary said…

      Oh say it isn't so!! A remake of Ben-Hur cannot touch the original.

    • At 10:39 pm, May 30, 2012, Anonymous Mary Ann said…

      The original was a silent film with Raymond Navarro as Ben-Hur, not exactly Charlton Heston; but the movie stays truer to the book. As much as I like the book and the movies, I was disappointed that they end with the crucifixtion. No resurrection.


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