(Rated PG [Canada] and PG-13 [MPAA] for biblical violence, including some disturbing images; directed by Kevin Reynolds; stars Joseph Fiennes, Peter Firth, Tom Felton, Cliff Curtis, Stephen Greif, María Botto, Stewart Scudamore and Stephen Hagan; run time: 107 min.)
The Resurrection as mystery
By Ted Giese
Before the film “Risen” (2016), there was the Oscar-winning movie “The Robe” (1953), in which Richard Burton played the fictional Roman tribune Marcellus, a soldier present at Jesus’ crucifixion who becomes a believer.
In Kevin Reynolds’ film “Risen,” Joseph Fiennes plays a Roman tribune, Clavius, who is present at the crucifixion of Jesus (Cliff Curtis) and then must come to terms with who Jesus is, based on hard evidence. Like “The Robe’s” Marcellus, Clavius is fictional, but the majority of the characters he engages with are based on the biblical account of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, who is called by the Hebraic name “Yeshua” throughout the film.
Set between the day of Jesus’ crucifixion and His ascension 40 days later, “Risen” is not a film made by an atheist bent on disproving Christianity. Rather, it is respectful of the Christian faith in its consideration of what a nonbeliever would have to “reconcile” should he come in contact with the risen Christ.
Following the events of Easter morning, Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) tasks Clavius with finding the missing body of Jesus to satisfy the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas (Stephen Greif), who fears that Jesus’ disciples have taken the dead body so they can claim the resurrection Jesus had foretold about Himself. Clavius is presented as a reasonable man going about solving a mystery like a modern-day detective. Does Clavius find Jesus’ body? As shown in the film’s trailer, he does; however, the body is not dead. In a letter to Pilate, Clavius writes, “I have seen two things which cannot reconcile: a man dead without question, and that same man alive again.”
The idea of a Roman soldier becoming a Christian or at least grappling with the Christian faith isn’t new. Hollywood has a long history of fascination with the soldiers who crucified Jesus. Sometimes they are brutal and sadistic, as depicted in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004); sometimes they are conflicted like the centurion Cornelius in the recent TV miniseries “A.D. The Bible Continues” (2015), which told the highly fictionalized story of a Roman centurion’s eventual conversion to the Christian faith (Acts 10).
John Wayne famously played a centurion at the foot of the cross in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965), which included Wayne’s famous line concerning Jesus: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” It’s clear that a combination of John Wayne and Richard Burton provided partial inspiration for the Coen Brothers’ recent film “Hail, Caesar!” (2016), in which George Clooney plays yet another Roman soldier at the foot of the cross.
The question is, Does “Risen” add anything to the long list of projects that focus on these Roman soldiers, or is it simply derivative?
Thankfully, “Risen” gives audiences something new. First, by mixing the religious sword-and-sandal biblical epic with the modern crime-solving genre, the film shows some originality in its approach. Second, by giving the audience the character Clavius, Reynolds adds a twist to the stock Roman soldier character.
While the film invites viewers to put themselves in Clavius’ sandals, just as in “The Robe” with Richard Burton, the addition of the soldier’s detective work for Pilate makes it feel fresher. Clavius’ spiritual yet skeptical detective character efficiently operates as the audience’s entry point into the biblical story. Additionally, “Risen” provides some needed originality by setting the film between Good Friday and the day of Jesus’ ascension. Apart from films like “Son of God” (2014), most movies dealing with the crucifixion, like “The Passion of the Christ,” tell little about the resurrection or provide no mention at all. Here, too, “Risen” is set apart from the crowd as Reynolds takes viewers from the foot of the cross to the ascension.
Another area where writer/director Reynolds shows some originality is in his careful depiction of the Romans as religious people who are not without some understanding of what Jewish people believe. The Romans shown by Reynolds are not agnostics or atheists. Clavius’ faith is in Mars, the Roman god of war. In a conversation with Pilate early in the film, he says he prays exclusively to Mars, to which Pilate responds saying he prays to the Roman god Minerva for wisdom. While the Bible provides no details concerning Pilate’s prayer life, this fictional detail referring to his need for wisdom points back to Jesus’ trial, which the film references only through dialogue.
During the same conversation about prayer, while acknowledging Clavius’ ambitions, Pilate asks him what he wants in life. Clavius’ hopes include a position in Rome, eventually a home in the countryside, a family and a day without killing — a time of peace. By the film’s end, Clavius faces a choice: Does he believe the peace he seeks will be granted to him by Mars, the Roman god of war, or by Yeshua, the only Son of the Jewish God Yahweh, whom he has seen risen from the dead? Right up until the final frames of the film, viewers are left to wonder what Clavius will do with the facts before him. Will he believe in Yahweh and the Messiah Jesus, or will he continue serving the god Mars and Rome? Will Reynolds leave it an open question?
Is “Risen” a flawless religious epic? No. Joseph Fiennes, who has played William Shakespeare in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) and Martin Luther in “Luther” (2003), turns in a good performance as Clavius, as does Peter Firth as Pontius Pilate. Aside from them, the acting is uneven. With “Risen,” Reynolds — who directed films like “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991), “Waterworld” (1995) and “The Count of Monte Cristo” (2002) — creates a film that’s better than “Waterworld” but not as well-crafted as “The Count of Monte Cristo.” It is, however, much better than “Son of God,” the theatrical retread from the Roma Downey and Mark Burnett TV miniseries “The Bible” (2013).
Apart from the film’s fictional characters and events, how does “Risen” do biblically? Here viewers will want to watch carefully, as there are some details that likely will jump out. For instance, Mary Magdalene (María Botto) is portrayed as having been a prostitute. While this is a common idea, it isn’t definitively biblical and only gained a foothold in western Christianity during the Medieval period. Also, while the Gospels speak of Jesus’ linen burial shroud, they make no mention of an image appearing on the shroud following His resurrection. “Risen” shows the empty shroud with an image that looks like the impression found on the Shroud of Turin. These moments of creative license may run afoul of some viewers.
When it comes to the characterizations of the disciples, “Risen” ends up largely sidestepping the disciples’ three years with Jesus prior to His death and resurrection. Rather than reflecting the depth and richness found in the biblical account, the disciples are instead portrayed as holy fools who don’t appear to have received three years of intense education in the company of Jesus. Whereas Peter (Stewart Scudamore) could have talked to Clavius about Jesus’ transfiguration, or His walking to them on the Sea of Galilee, or of his own confession of Jesus being “the Christ, the Son of the living God” before Jesus’ death and resurrection — a confession proved in the risen Christ — instead he is depicted as someone who, on the day of Easter, has not had his mind opened by Jesus to understand the Scriptures concerning the Messiah (Luke 24:45). Had Reynolds taken this into account, the characterization of the disciples could have been more compelling.
Where the film gains much higher marks is in fully embracing a risen Christ Jesus and the conviction of the remaining disciples, who no longer fear death after their encounters with Jesus following the resurrection. Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan) is particularly honest, even if he comes across as the biggest fool. In a more tempered moment, when asked if the disciples knew Jesus would rise from the dead, Bartholomew joyfully says, “He told us He would, but in truth we doubted.”
While “Risen” — produced in part by AFFIRMFilms, a division of Sony Pictures, which recently has produced a stream of films aimed at evangelicals like “Moms’ Night Out” (2014), “Courageous” (2011) and “Fireproof” (2008) — will not satisfy every viewer, it is a semi-secularly produced religious film that deals with doubt and faith in an even-handed, positive way. Like “Hail Caesar!,” it treats Christianity fairly. There is no hard edge of cynicism that characterizes films like Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), Denys Arcand’s “Jesus of Montreal” (1989) or “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” (1979).
“Risen’s” true strength may come in its “approachableness.” The film will appeal to viewers who enjoy crime mysteries, detective work and history as well as to those who would be less likely to watch something like “Son of God” or “The Robe.” Will “Risen” win Reynolds any Oscars? Not likely, but for all its flaws it provides an accessible film in which Jesus is both mysterious and approachable. It’s the kind of movie that invites Christian viewers to contemplate the nature of conversion in a personal way. It asks the valuable question, “What is it like to be moved from having no faith in Jesus to being a Christian?” This is an introspective layer many religious films fail to embrace.
The Rev. Ted Giese (email@example.com) is associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to the Canadian Lutheran and Reporter/Reporter Online; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese.
Posted Feb. 26, 2016