Malaysian authorities say they did not remove Christ from latest Ben Hur film

by Gregory Tomlin, |

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (Christian Examiner) – When New Mexico Gov. Lew Wallace wrote Ben Hur in 1880 – a book adapted for the big screen on three occasions now – its subtitle was "A Tale of the Christ."

For filmgoers in Malaysia, however, the newest version of the film abandons the tenet of faith depicted in the book and its cinematic adaptions.

That's because scenes depicting Jesus Christ were cut from the 2016 remake before it was released to the Malaysian public. Malaysia is a predominately Muslim country, in spite of the fact that it is in Southeast Asia.

I felt cheated. The novel from which this movie is adapted is Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ. It means Jesus is central to the plot. It was censored so much the storyline made no sense! How did Judah's mother and sister get cured from leprosy?

Just who ordered the deletion of the scenes featuring Jesus is somewhat of a mystery. The chairman of the country's Film Censorship Board (LPF), Datuk Abdul Halim, said he did not recall seeing any scenes featuring Christ in the version of the film submitted for review by the board. He also insisted that the board did not know if scenes were cut and who cut them.

"Maybe, but not by us; probably by producers when they sent the film to Malaysia, they already cut the scenes. They know (there's) some sensitivities," Halim told the Malay Mail Online.

That move would be highly unusual for the film's producers, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, who were also behind the mini-series, The Bible. Their goal, they said, was to introduce the idea of divine forgiveness to viewers in the film.

"Woven into the fabric of it is the story of faith," Downey said before the film's release this summer. "It is because [Judah Ben-Hur] has an encounter with Jesus Christ that Judah's heart is open. There, at the foot of the cross, we see his hardness drop away."

Now, however, those scenes are gone and the film is 11 minutes shorter than its runtime in the West. That upset many fans who went to see the film. They soon went online to raise questions about how the character of Christ and His actions, central to the plot, could be removed.

For example, they pointed to scenes from the book and earlier screen adaptations where Judah Ben-Hur's family is cured of leprosy.

"I felt cheated. The novel from which this movie is adapted is Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ. It means Jesus is central to the plot. It was censored so much the storyline made no sense! How did Judah's mother and sister get cured from leprosy?" Jasmine Sia, who saw the film Friday, told the Malay Mail Online.

"They just appeared at the end of the movie healed. That's why it made no sense. The original story was that when Jesus died, they got healed."

Rodrigo Santoro, the actor who played Jesus in the movie, did not appear in the film at all, she also said.

The edited version of Ben Hur was distributed for Malaysian audiences by United International Pictures (UIP) Malaysia. On its Facebook page, the distributor fielded comments from moviegoers disappointed with the cuts.

One viewer, Farshid Rezaee, said there should have been a disclaimer on the film about the deleted scenes.

"I chose to watch that movie precisely because of its strong Christian message. The movie made no sense without those scenes. Is there an obligation to screen a movie like this knowing you have to remove crucial scenes? Had I known about those changes, I would not have paid any money for it."

Another patron wrote that the film had been "chopped up." He said he was encouraging his friends to go to Singapore to watch the film.

In an earlier Facebook post, a digital film poster in the form of a GIF – a moving picture file used on social media – showed Santoro, who played Jesus. Below his picture, the text read, "Teacher, Prophet, Savior." The ad likely led moviegoers to believe the film would be presented in its original format.

Not so, according to UIP Malaysia. According to the company, it "is required to oblige local legal requirements and guidelines for the movie to be released locally in the market." The distributor never directly said, however, that it altered the film before its submission to the censorship board for review.

The guidelines mentioned by the company are based on Islamic laws which prohibit the promotion of any other religion. One regulation claims films that promote "polytheism of Allah" are not allowed. Polytheism is a frequent – though baseless – charge made against Christians by Muslims.

Another rule claims a film or portions of it may be banned if offensive to another religion.