This new CGI and 3D version of the Bible era epic is a fresh political interpretation of the story. The 1959 Charleton Heston starrer was closer to the text of the adapted book, apart from being an iconic film of its time, but this movie takes a serious look at the relationship between an occupying force and the rebellious citizens of the occupied land. So here, the incident that triggers the bitterness between Judah Ben-Hur, a rich Jewish prince, and Messsala Severus, a Roman Commander, is not an accidentally falling tile from the roof of Ben- Hur’s palatial home, but an assassination attempt on the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, by a Jewish terrorist with a cross-bow who has been hiding in their house.
After being held responsible for this heinous act, Ben-Hur is condemned to be a galley slave for life on a Roman warship, but returns to Jerusalem after a fortuitous escape, five years later. He then takes on the Roman occupation of his homeland and becomes a resistance fighter for the Jewish State.
During the idyllic days of their boyhood, Messala (Toby Kebbel) was, in this re-interpretation, the adopted brother of Ben-Hur (Jack Huston). Since Messala’s grand-father was said to be guilty for having betrayed Julius Caesar, the young man wants to redeem his family name and joins the Roman army. During the rest of the movie, even in their most ugly confrontations, Ben-Hur always addresses Messala as ‘brother’. The term is significant, not just for indicating a sibling connection, but, towards the end of the movie, for bringing in the message of forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
Ben- Hur encounters the compassion of Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) earlier on in the movie and later, after countless suffering and bloodshed, embraces Messala, his tormentor, after winning a spectacular chariot race against him. The freedom fighter turns pacifist.
What comes through powerfully in the movie are the horrors inflicted on a conquered population by a superior military that sees all personal suffering as collateral damage, and also the idea that a violent resistance force will eventually win, but in the process, the humanity of both the occupier and the occupied will be destroyed.
Certainly, this Ben-Hur has its flaws, and suffers from comparison with the original film, but it is, nevertheless, an absorbing, though somewhat depressing watch.