I have to admit that when I know a movie was produced by bible-believing Christians I don’t expect much. Such was the case with films like October Baby, Gimme Shelter, Son of God and Old Fashioned. I am not saying that these are horrible films—they are just not very good films—and certainly nowhere near great films. The last truly masterful movie motivated from the personal faith commitment of a film-maker is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ released Ash Wednesday twelve years ago.
Timed for this Lenten season is Sony Pictures’ Risen distributed nationwide through its company Columbia Pictures. It is important to know that Risen is actually produced by Affirm Films, a subsidiary of Sony that according to its own mission statement is “dedicated to producing, acquiring and marketing films which inspire, uplift, and entertain audiences” and “is the industry leader in faith-based film,” taking credit for movies such as War Room, Courageous, Heaven is for Real, Soul Surfer, and When the Game Stands Tall. Affirm Films is very wisely taking advantage of a niche market, producing movies for a Christian audience.
Risen is one of those films. Knowing that a movie is faith-based and aimed for the Christian movie-goer, as I said, I simply do not expect much. The problem with nearly every movie that comes from sincere Christians, is that pietistic statements and preaching comes first, characters and plots are wooden and predictable, acting mostly shallow. The story-telling impulse is to tell rather than to show with an obvious eagerness to get to that covert Christian message. As I said in my review of Old Fashioned, “there exists a certain anxiousness in the Christian film-maker that will not allow for subtlety and real story-line development. Since film is a visual medium, the rule should be ‘show-me—rather than tell me’—provide less sermonizing that depends on the spoken word—and more story-telling imagery that depends on the creative visual imagination.”
Risen is a refreshing faith-based movie that delivers a well-written, well-acted, more sophisticated, profound and creative telling of the Jesus-Story. However it does not completely escape the pitfalls of movies aimed at the Christian film-viewer. The film begins with its main character the ambitious Roman tribune Clavius played by Joseph Fiennes, perhaps best known for his role in Shakespeare in Love, leading a Roman cohort in a bloody battle against a band of Jewish insurrectionists—an engaging scene if for no other reason the attention film-makers paid to the ingenuity of Roman military formation and strategies to breach enemy lines. After his victory Clavius is summoned by Pontius Pilate, who under pressure from Jewish leaders to hasten the deaths of three crucified Jews, commands him to oversee the breaking of their legs. An already tired, cynical and battle-weary Clavius arrives at the scene of the crucifixion. The legs of the two thieves are broken. Mary cries in anticipation that Jesus too will suffer this horror, and in a moment of compassion, which the audience would not expect, Clavius orders that Jesus who already appears to be dead, be instead pieced with a lance. In this scene Clavius looks intently into the face of the dead Jesus whose eyes are open, as if to study the pallid visage—a moment that will become important later in the film.
The Jewish leaders request from Pilate that Jesus’ tomb be sealed and guarded so as to prevent his disciples from removing the body and telling everyone that indeed Jesus rose from the dead. Two Roman guards chosen for the duty do not take their orders seriously, get drunk and fall asleep. It is of course discovered that mysteriously the stone was removed, seals broken, ropes snapped and the tomb empty. Under pressure from the Sanhedrin intent on crushing faith in Christ, Pilate initiates a search for the dead body of Jesus. Clavius is put in charge of finding the corpse aided by a second in command, Lucius, played by actor Tom Felton known for his role as Draco in the Harry Potter films. Clavius, who seeks to rise to the top of Roman power and prestige will not allow himself to fail and turns Jerusalem upside down in his ruthless quest to find the rotting body of Yeshua—as the film refers to Jesus according to the Aramaic. The followers of Jesus are hunted down and subjected to interrogation and threats of torture. An acquaintance of the apostles, when bribed, leads Clavius and Lucius to the Upper Room. It is here where the movie especially takes off in an unexpected, clever and creative direction.
Spoiler Alert. When Clavius enters the room, there are the apostles—and who should be sitting in their midst, but the living Jesus. Clavius has seen his face before, the dead face of Christ on the cross. Fiennes carries the scene off well—stunned, astonished and confused. Needless to say, the pagan, cynical Clavius cannot deny that Christ rose from the dead. In the rest of the film he joins the apostles on their way to Galilee as their guide and protector, pursued by Lucius who has taken up command of the hunt for Christ’s body. In Galilee Clavius and the Eleven wait for Christ. Jesus finally appears in a cinematic mounting of John 21, in which the apostles, having gone fishing but catch nothing, listen to the instructions of a mysterious man on the shore and haul in a net miraculously full of fish—and Peter of course realizes it is Jesus.
The film is a chronicle of a pagan intent on disproving the resurrection and crushing the nascent Church whose life is forever altered when, keeping company with the apostles, he has a personal encounter with the very Jesus he sought to deny.
Risen may be recommended for its creative and unusual treatment of the story of Christ—while at the same time respecting that story from an historical and doctrinal perspective as did for example the 1961 Anthony Quinn film Barabbas, the central character who, like Clavius, connected to the Passion of Christ, starts out deriding Christ and ends up a believer. Risen also contains some exceptionally well-written and well-acted scenes. One such scene is a conversation that takes place in a tavern between Clavius and one of the Roman soldiers ordered to guard Christ’s tomb whom Clavius wishes to interrogate. The audience cannot but help have pity on the guard who has been bribed to spread the lie that Christ’s body was stolen. The soldier now drunk and crying tells the real story of what he really saw. It’s a scene full of tension born from a character who in conscience knows the truth, doesn’t understand that truth and is afraid to speak that truth.
The movie contains an innovative portrayal of the Roman soldiers who oversee the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves. Departing from the usual characterization of the soldiers as either cruel or indifferent—these soldiers exhibit a level of concern and pity for the dying criminals. One of them even guides—in a sense mid-wives—the “bad thief” who struggles against his death, to surrender to it and bring an end to his agony. It may not be historically accurate, or biblically true—but as film-making, the scene shows a certain depth of creativity. Another interesting touch is when Clavius enters Christ’s empty tomb, where all that’s left for him to examine are the burial cloths. Unlike any other film about Jesus, Risen takes the bold step to show that the linen bears the imprint of the Shroud of Turin.
Despite the film’s strengths, Risen unfortunately does not completely escape the pitfalls of faith-based cinema. One weakness of this film is the contrived way it introduces biblical characters. For example, Clavius is anxiously approached by a Jew clutching a sealed scroll who tells him Pilate has granted his request to provide for the burial of Jesus. Of course this is Joseph of Arimathea, but script-writers think they must let the audience in on the character’s identity and so Clavius says, “So you’re from Arimathea.” Such contrivance is simply not needed; it comes off wooden and artificial. This may seem a petty criticism, but it is such cinematic errors that drag on a film’s artistic merit.
More serious is the fact that Risen at times succumbs to overt sentimental depictions of Christian piety. An important scene features the apostle Bartholomew interrogated by Clavius. It’s difficult to imagine what the film-makers were thinking. The character comes off with the maturity of a teen-ager fresh from a revival meeting who no longer takes anything about this world seriously. While Clavius is grave, Bartholomew is vapid and silly. Perhaps this was Affirm Films’ attempt at comic relief or Bartholomew’s Christian giddiness was simply to play up to the expected Christian audience. Later when Clavius is in the company of Jesus and the apostles, Jesus performs a post-resurrection cure of a leper, to which the goofy Bartholomew turns to Clavius and says, “That’s why we follow him.” The whole scene drips with that expected piety, forced and affected in every way. Christian film-makers simply need to begin to learn when less is really more. This rule certainly needed to be applied to Risen’s over the top depiction of Christ’s ascension. Here with stirring music, Jesus literally walks into the sunset!
However, even despite these weaknesses, Risen is the better crafted faith-based film. Christians and non-Christians too should be encouraged to see it.