New Ben-Hur Movie Seeks to Relate to a Modern Audience

Ben-Hur“Jesus” kept his distance as he walked into a press conference on the 18th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

“I won’t get too close because I have a cold,” he said with a smile, as he slipped into a padded chair and sipped a bit of tea.

“Jesus” is actually Rodrigo Santoro, the Brazilian actor who plays the Savior in “Ben-Hur,” the excellent new action adventure movie released widely on August 19 by Metro-Goldwin-Mayer Pictures and Paramount Pictures.

Santoro and Jack Huston, who plays the title role in the $100-million blockbuster, sat side-by-side at a Miami media conference. The actors were in town promoting the new “Ben-Hur” as a classic story for a modern audience.

“It’s been nearly 60 years between this movie and the [1959] version,” said Huston, who calls the 2016 “Ben-Hur” a reimagining, not a remake. “Most people have not seen the [1959] version, so we actually are getting to tell this story to a whole new generation of people.”


A relatable movie

Director Timur Bekmambetov wanted his take on Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the classic novel written by Gen. Lew Wallace in 1880, to be as grand as earlier movie versions but also relatable, Santoro said.

With a cast of hundreds (that looks like 100,000 thanks to technology), panoramic views of gorgeous Italian landscapes, impressive ocean battles and a Chariot race that rivals earlier versions of the famous scene, the film is epic.

Regarding the film’s ability to connect to audiences, Santoro highlighted a pivotal scene in which Christ gives a cup of water to Judah Ben-Hur, the betrayed Jewish nobleman being taken into slavery.

“That’s not Jesus Christ, it is just a carpenter fellow doing something nice,” Santoro said, emphasizing the humility of Christ. “I want people to feel that ‘You know what? We are sons of God too – we can do this.”

The new “Ben-Hur,” set in early first-century Rome, is familiar by design, said Huston, grandson of famed screenwriter and director John Huston and nephew of actress Angelica Huston.

“Times change but humans don’t,” Huston said. “[The director] is constantly pulling references that he knows will relate to modern audiences, be it from NASCAR or the way I punch [my brother] in the face three times.” The idea for the three punches was taken from a YouTube video, said Huston, who also plays the disfigured Richard Harrow in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.

Ben-Hur Movie 

Classic story, modern themes

Audience members who saw the film at a special prescreening last month at the Regal South Stadium 18 on Miami Beach praised the film’s modernity and blockbuster qualities.

“There are family issues like resentment, anger and sibling rivalry, but there’s also brotherly love, romance, action, and intensity – not a boring moment,” said Dr. Nohemi Sadule, a nurse scientist who attends the Sunset church of Christ in Miami. “It has all the action of a big Hollywood movie but without a need for profanity or impurity – a family can watch it.”

Joey Cardenas, who also attended the pre-screening, drew parallels between the distrust and hatred demonstrated by the film’s major characters and the challenges facing modern society.

“The movie really portrays how difficult it is to walk through [animosity] but also how to remain your own person despite being bogged down and hurt by it,” said Cardenas, who attends Riverside Baptist in Kendall. “It’s a story about struggling to hold on to yourself when the world is trying to tear you down, which is so relevant today.”


A larger role for Jesus

Cardenas added that the inclusion of the Christ character in the storyline did not initially seem relevant to him. “But as the movie progressed, I understood the deeper purpose behind his presence,” said Cardenas, who is studying journalism at Florida International University. “He lays the foundation for what the point of the movie is: selflessness and forgiveness.”

Unlike in the 1959 “Ben-Hur” movie, the Christ character “punctuates the story throughout the movie,” said Santoro, who played a very different type of king, the mortal-turned-god Xerxes in 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) and 300 (2006).

Ben-Hur Actors


Familiar Supporting Actors

The best known actor in new Ben-Hur is the always superb Morgan Freeman, who plays the rich and powerful Nubian Sheik Ilderim. Ilderim mentors and trains Ben-Hur to participate in the iconic chariot race. During the race, a vengeful Ben-Hur goes head to head with Messala, Ben-Hur’s conflicted adopted brother, played by Toby Kebbell. Kebbell was Victor von Doom in the “Fantastic Four” last year and Koba in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” in 2014.

Moises Arias, who played Rico on Disney’s “Hannah Montana” a decade ago, does a solid job as Gestas, a teenage Jewish zealot taken in by Ben-Hur’s family with disastrous results.

The main female character, the strong-willed Jew turned Christian Esther, is played convincingly by Nazanin Boniadi. Esther, who becomes a believer during the course of the movie, plays an important role in Ben-Hur’s development. Along with Ilderim, she voices some of the movies best, most spiritual lines.


Embraced by Christian leaders

“Ben-Hur” has been well-received by the Christian writers and leaders who saw it in advance of its general release.

Regarding the movie, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas encouraged his readers to “Go see it. You won’t be disappointed.” Trey Reynolds, a columnist, wrote that Ben-Hur “is probably the biggest budget film that evangelical audiences will love.”

The movie’s website,, has video clips of many nationally-known faith leaders, such as Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church, and Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church, praising the movie. The site also offers free resources, such as pictures, movie clips and discussion guides, for use by faith-based communities.

On the website, executive producers Mark Burnett, who with his wife created “The Bible” miniseries, reminds viewers that “Ben-Hur” is not only “one of the great stories of all time, it’s also a story about Jesus, about faith.”

As he finished his tea at the press briefing, Santoro was asked about the movie’s potential to impact non-believers.

Santoro pushed back his chair and leaned forward as if to propel his answer.

“Is the question will this movie bring people to Christ?” Santoro asked. “I not only hope it will. I think it will.”


Dr. Steve J. Rios is a Miami-based free-lance writer and president of Rios Research & Evaluation.

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