"Ben-Hur" Cast & Crew: Forgiveness Transcends Revenge
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When Lew Wallace wrote Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ in 1880, the former Civil War general-turned author couldn't have possibly imagined that his story would be seen by people all over the world...again and again and again.
Lo these 135 years later, Wallace's epic tale about a wronged Jewish nobleman's unquenchable thirst for revenge has graced the big screen four epic times. Its fifth comes with Paramount Pictures' new remake starring Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro, and Nazanin Boniadi, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, and executive produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.
Considered "the most influential Christian book of the 19th century", A Tale of the Christ pits brother against brother in a harrowing battle of betrayal and chariot races. Ben-Hur, the 2016 edition, builds a familiar tension while breathing fresh life into a narrative that centers more on the forgiveness described in rather than dwelling on revenge.
More Forgiveness than Revenge
From the get-go, Bekmambetov fashioned the film to focus on redemption. Our main character, Judah Ben-Hur, learns the grave consequences of revenge and the freedom found in forgiveness. Understanding the nature of this character and the motivations of his rival/adoptive brother, Messala, is exactly why Bekmambetov thought Huston perfect for the lead role.
"It's the understanding of another character that takes you all the way through to the end," says Huston. "Because there's that great question here about forgiveness. How do you forgive? It's really interesting. It's something that we would talk about a lot on set."
But before we get to the question of the day, we witness the conflict, the drama. Brother against brother. And for Bekmambetov, it's more complicated than a fight between good and evil. At its heart, it's a family torn apart. It's betrayal by a loved one. And that's not easy to reconcile.
"This movie is deeper than just a story about good brother, bad brother. Both of them are good. Both of them are fighting not with each other, they're fighting with fate, with the circumstances," says Bekmambetov.
The Bible, Big Questions, and Ben-Hur
Intersecting with historical and biblical accounts, Ben-Hur explores the genesis of Christianity in Jerusalem as we watch Jesus come on to the scene. By design, it chronicles the life of a man severely wronged by his kinsman and the journey his soul embarks on as his appetite for revenge contrasts with the mercy he observes from Jesus.
"What I loved about it was if you're looking at it from Judah's point of view, perspective, Jesus wasn't Jesus Christ. Jesus was the local carpenter. He has no idea about what Jesus has been doing. It simply comes down to another person showing an act of kindness, like the simplicity of a guy giving you water in the moment when you're in great need," Huston says. "Everyone can take something from this, and take something positive, and a real step forward, whereas it seems like we're consistent in making many steps backwards in this life, especially now in the face of what we're against right now, these atrocities that are happening around the world."
"How do you forgive? We are capable and it takes one person to take that step…. That's the great thing about these movies, with these big epics, this grander scale is they have to be rooted in a reality, which is the real questions in life. I feel like if people can leave thinking, ‘Oh, what can I let go? What kind of baggage can I let go today?' I think that's going to be helpful," Huston says.
Kebbell, who plays Messala, came at it from a different perspective.
"[My character arc] was very much about revenge and then realizing that it's the wrong path," he says. "As for forgiveness, I really appreciated that sentiment. But, I liked that it was still a challenge to get that place."
"The bizarre thing of life is you can always make that turn and change," says Kebbell. "That's part of forgiveness, allowing someone the opportunity to change their opinion, their stupidity, their pride."
Faith in Jesus
The complexities of Ben-Hur's story don't stop with our two lead characters, Judah and Messala, either.
"Every character has major loss and completely tragic circumstances," says Boniadi, who plays Esther in the film. "She leans on that faith to carry her through."
This secondary role is a crucial one that Boniadi, an Iranian-born actress, adored playing.
"I love her moral compass. I was drawn to the character because she's actually not perfect," Boniadi says. "If you watch throughout the film, she's looking to Jesus to find her path, but she's flawed. She has outbursts. She has moments of weakness. But, she has a strong moral compass that drives her. So when she finds faith, she learns to forgive before everybody else and then she encourages everybody else to forgive and follow Jesus."
Taking a page from Wallace's book, and consequently the Bible, Boniadi grew to an understanding of what forgiveness truly means.
"Some people find forgiveness and kindness as weak, that they see it as weakness," she says, "but the thing that I loved about all of the characters is that their moment of strength or their strongest point is when they find forgiveness in their hearts. The more forgiveness Esther has along her journey, the stronger she becomes and the more vocal she becomes."
Ben-Hur's Eternal Message
When asked what they hope audiences will take away from Ben-Hur, Bekmambetov and Huston both agreed.
"I think people will believe that the only way we can live together in this world is if we can learn how we can forgive each other," says Bekmambetov.
"Being able to let go and release, not hold everything so tightly within ourselves. This blame and this anger, the rest of it. It comes down to releasing, forgiving, getting past," says Huston.
Behind the scenes, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (The Bible miniseries) were all too happy to join as executive producers, to help bring this entertaining and impactful conversion story to a new generation.
Speaking of a favortie, emotional scene between Ben-Hur and Jesus, Downey says: "It just reminds me of all the places that we in ourselves might be holding onto either anger or disappointment, or hurt, or bitterness. Whatever the things that we hang onto in our lives, that we all have an opportunity in front of the cross to lay those things down, and through grace be healed and restored."
Ben-Hur releases nationwide on Friday, August 19, 2016.
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