Film Review: Risen

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I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to “Christian” or faith-based movies. Perhaps it’s the need for mass-market appeal, or the pressures of getting a box office success. But not only are most faith-based movies not that good artistically, they’re often theologically suspect. The Prince of Egypt calls the viewer to a vacuous “there can be miracles if you believe” (in what? yourself?). The Passion of the Christ’s main inspiration is from a Catholic mystic’s fanciful dreams and meditations. Then there are the flat-out untrue depictions of biblical stories and characters on the big screen – Russell Crowe as Noah the eco-terrorist, Christian Bale as Moses the schizophrenic barbarian, and the myriad of actors as shampoo-commercial Jesus. While the power of film make these portrayals emotionally compelling, I find it hard to get excited about them.

Risen – directed by Kevin Reynolds has just been released in time for Easter. It’s a novel premise – Roman soldier Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is a battle-hardened veteran fighting to keep the peace in Roman-occupied Judea. He witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus, but three days later is tasked  by Pilate with job of detective: finding out why Jesus’s body is missing from the tomb. It’s cleverly written in that this skeptical Roman soldier is woven into many familiar Biblical narratives of Jesus’s death and post-resurrection appearances, and meets many of the same characters in these eyewitness accounts (e.g. the centurion, Barabbas, the Romans guarding the tomb, Pilate, Jesus’s disciples, and eventually Jesus himself) Spoiler alert: Jesus is alive!

After watching it yesterday morning with low expectations, I was actually pleasantly surprised. In summary, while it’s not for everyone, it’s a pretty good film and a great conversation starter for both Christians and skeptics alike.

There are already some thoughtful reviews from Christians (here and here), but here are some of my own specific observations.

  • For a $20 million budget, Risen came across as well-produced, with a high-calibre cast and crew. The Roman characters in particular were well cast and portrayed convincingly. There’s a good battle scene, and some nice special effects, and moments of breath-taking cinematography. It didn’t look and feel like a cheesy Christian movie, except at a few points (usually when Jesus and the disciples showed up).
  • It wasn’t too long – I thought it was going to be 147 minutes but it was only 107 minutes. Great.
  • The script had some great questions (all posed by the skeptical Romans). Clavius is the character you identify with the most. He asks the questions that we would ask ourselves about the resurrection story (is it true? how do you reconcile the facts? what does it mean?). He expresses hopes and dreams that all of us harbour. And he has my favourite line of the film: “What is it you seek Clavius?” “Peace. Certainty. A day without death.” All hopes that we have, whatever our backgrounds. And all hopes that the Christian gospel gives a satisfying answer to.
  • The plot weaves in all the different possibilities and explanations that were given for the tomb being empty (e.g. disciples stole the body), and how Clavius investigates each one and finds them to not to be true. These are great conversation starters.

Some cringe moments or things to be cautious of:

  • The portrayal of the disciples was pretty mediocre. You’d think after having the Scriptures opened up to them they’d have understood that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in [Jesus’s] name to all nations…” (Luke 24:36-47) But they don’t mention any of that. Instead, there’s vague talk about becoming more loving and peaceful. The movie depicts one of the disciples in particular as becoming changed, yes – but changed into a crazy, Ned Flanders-type Christian, just a little bit too unhinged to be convincing. And for someone who was the first to see the risen Jesus, Mary Magdalene just seemed to be away with the fairies.
  • Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) is in the movie. He even seemed like petulant Draco. I guess you can’t leave some characters behind.
  • It was a bit weird seeing Jesus portrayed by Cliff Curtis from Once Were Warriors (and now the first Nuzilund Jesus it seems). This would also an issue if you believe the portrayal goes against the 2nd commandment (not to make a graven image of God).
  • The crucifixion scene is portrayed in the first 15 minutes, and it’s gruesome (though thankfully it’s not as gratuitous as the Passion of the Christ)
  • There’s a bit of war violence and scenes with dead bodies being dug up (no zombies though)

I think Risen is good enough to watch, whether with Christians or non-Christians. It’s a great starting point for a further conversation or exploration of the historicity of the biblical accounts, but also the spiritual significance of these events. Perhaps after the movie, you’d want to affirm people’s deep desires, and wrestle with the evidence that Jesus did rise. But ultimately, this movie (or any movie) can’t do the job of answering the question of why the resurrection matters. For that, you’d need to do what Jesus did:

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” – Luke 24:27

Risen is a film that poses great questions about the historicity and significance of Jesus’s death and resurrection – timely as we approach public holidays in his honour. But only the good news of Jesus, explained in the Bible, can provide the best answers to these questions, and satisfy our longings for peace, certainty, and a day without death.

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