'Ben-Hur' remake stresses reconciliation theme, producer Downey says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc

By Mark Pattison

(CNS) — It’s been 57 years since the last film version of “Ben-Hur” hit movie
theaters. That alone is, for most Hollywood types, reason enough for a remake.

when the husband-and-wife team of Roma Downey and Mark Burnett saw the
screenplay of the new version from John Ridley, he of Oscar-winning “12 Years a
Slave” fame, “we loved the script,” said Downey, an executive producer of the
new film, as is Ridley. “We loved the rephrasing of the story as one of
forgiveness and reconciliation instead of the previous incarnations which were revenge-driven.”

added, “Certainly, my faith is important to me as a Catholic and I feel that
the values in this film are important and valuable. In the time we’re living,
in a world that’s uncertain, with fear and confusion, I feel the central themes
of forgiveness and reconciliation is a message that’s needed now more than
ever. It’s my hope that audiences will leave the film with this message of

and husband Burnett, one of the producers of “Ben-Hur,” spoke to Catholic
News Service during an Aug. 13 telephone interview from Los Angeles, in a last
promotion push for the film, which was to open nationwide Aug. 19.

very tricky, all the marketing,” Burnett said. “All it means is a number.
You’ve got to make projects that you love, you’ve got to make them very well,
do your best job, then tell people about it, and sit back and let it happen.”

added, “There’s a big push in the secular market,” noting big “Ben-Hur”
billboards around Los Angeles, which she said is exciting. “We were excited to see the
letter from Cardinal (Donald W.) Wuerl (of Washington in support of ‘Ben-Hur,’
and Archbishop (Jose H.) Gomez here in town (Los Angeles), and Cardinal (Sean
P.) O’Malley (of Boston).”

support for the movie has come “across denominations from all churches across
the country,” Downey added, “but the Catholic Church this time has really
stepped up and endorsed the film.” She said she hopes the church can “reach out
to people who are unchurched and maybe don’t know about Jesus.

praised the performance of Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus. “He brings
a gentle strength but also a beautiful timelessness to the role.” Jesus in the 1959
version was played by Claude Heater, who didn’t even get his name in the
credits. “Jesus was more of an imperial presence, he wasn’t interpreted as a
person you could see or feel his presence,” Downey told CNS. “That’s something
John Ridley addressed in his script. Not only he (Jesus) the son of God, but the
son of man.”

The new
“Ben-Hur” was filmed at Rome’s Cinecitta studio complex, and Burnett and Downey
“had the opportunity to get a blessing from the pope,” she added. “Pope Francis
personally blessed Rodrigo Santoro. That was an extraordinary moment for him,
and for us.”

John Mulderig, CNS’ associate director for media reviews, gave “Ben-Hur” a classification of A-III — adults, citing stylized but harsh violence including combat, and a nongraphic
marital bedroom scene.

amid the busy-ness of moviemaking, the couple still finds time to pray. “Every
day,” Burnett said. “For me personally I try to start my day with small prayers,
and then I try to train physically for a couple of hours, then I take a solid
half an hour after training to do nothing but praying.”

from the cinema and television work, Downey and Burnett co-founded a charity,
Cradle of Christianity, last year to address the exodus of Christians from the
Middle East. Downey is working on a documentary called “Faithkeepers” to tell
their story.

should be doing more to help them,” Downey said. “They’re about to be going
into another winter over there, displaced and homeless. We’re trying to find
ways to get organized and get money and help these people before the winter
hits.” She said she appreciated the declaration by Secretary of State John
Kerry that Islamic State was committing genocide against Christian and other
populations in the region, “that a spade would be called a spade.”

told CNS how Cradle of Christianity last year played “a small part in getting 153
Iraqi Catholics resettled in the Czech Republic. It was really, really
complicated to get people visas and passports and settled in another country.”

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.

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