“Risen” is directed by Kevin Reynolds (“Tristan + Isolde,” “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “Waterworld”) and stars Joseph Fiennes (“Shakespeare in Love,” “Enemy at the Gates,” “Luther”) as Roman military tribune Clavius, along with his aide Lucius played by Tom Felton (the “Harry Potter” franchise, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Belle”).
Clavius is a devoted commander who is desperately searching for a “day without death.” As a soldier, his quest for peace through war—the pax romana—is a self-evident paradox that brings tremendous conflict, both internal and external, to the character. Clavius prays to the Roman god of war, Mars, but all he really hopes for is the day when he does not have to fight anymore.
The film opens with Clavius leading a military troop in crushing a small Jewish revolt on the same day as the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. When the tribune returns from battle, he is quickly requested by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) and over the proceeding hours is assigned the duty of ensuring the death, burial and guarding of the revolutionary Rabbi named Yeshua (Cliff Curtis, “Fear the Walking Dead”). What transpires on screen for the next 118 minutes is essentially the “manhunt that changed the course of human history,” as Clavius is charged with the investigation and reclaiming of the missing body of Jesus. What Clavius ultimately finds on his journey is a shattering of his beliefs and values as he must wrestle with the questions of “Who is this Jesus?” and “What will I do if I find Him?”
Why is it so important?
The best part about “Risen” is that it tells an unexpectedly-original and uniquely-creative story. Despite dozens of previous “Easter” films, this one brings a fresh imagining to the always relevant story of the resurrection. Rich Peluso, SVP of Affirm Films, says “We really see the rest of Jesus’ life on Earth in a way cinematically we’ve never seen before.” Usually, Christian films are told from an obviously biased perspective of the believer. But what “Risen” does so remarkably is gives us a provocative eye-witness account from an unbelieving outsider. In fact, the whole movie is told as testimonial given by Clavius. The film challenges viewers to think about and see the old story differently. “What I love about Risen is how it challenges our conditioning to accept others… where his [Clavius’] conditioning crumbles to take on a different landscape” (Joseph Fiennes). There are very few faith-based films that I would be comfortable bringing my non-Christian friends to see. But this is not just the greatest “outreach” film to date; it is a superb film in its own right. Also, it is by far the best casting and world-building that I have ever seen in a Bible-based film. I finally feel like I am watching a riveting story unfold in the ancient Middle East, rather than a Broadway play performed by blue-eyed, English thespians.
In the opening scenes, the audience is captured and brought into the tumultuous world of Jerusalem in the first century AD. Immediately, we see the ruthless efficiency of Rome in stomping out even the slightest hints of rebellion. But we also see conflict of following orders versus showing compassion. Most films seem to depict these ancient civilizations as barbarous brutes who have no sense of humanity or dignity within them. “Risen” shows poignantly that even a Roman solider is still human, and no one ever really gets used to being around death and suffering. Another thing the film does better than most is in depicting the sufficiently filthy living conditions of the time. Everything just looks so much more authentic than your typical Hollywood blockbuster. The actors/actresses are not overdone with frills and makeup; they are simply presented in a very raw and realistic way.
The film also has many poignant moments as the characters deal with themes of truth, freedom and peace. At one point the tribune tries to negotiate with Mary Magdalene (María Botto): her freedom in exchange for information. Instead, she calmly and confidently states, “I’m already free.” Freedom. It is what we are all looking for, and true freedom is not something that can be bought or negotiated. When Clavius is confronted with the question of what frightens him, he answers, “To be wrong.” Is it possible that we have been wrong our entire life? Is it possible that everything we have believed in and aspired towards is all in vain? Clavius is tormented by the notions and discovers an irreconcilable truth: “A man dead without question; and that same man alive again.”
Now, of course, “Risen” is no perfect film — arguably there are none. The first two acts are very strong and play out as a mystery drama, but the third act really diverts into a jarringly different tone. The final act drags a bit becoming a little too much like campy predecessors trying to give a paint-by-number Gospel presentation. I think the film should have simply ended with the open-ended question of: “Now that you have met Jesus, what will you do with Him?” The entire film put the viewer in Clavius’ sandals as we discover the truth along with him. Personally, I believe instead of giving a tidy resolution, the film should have left the ending to the decision of each individual viewer, just as in reality we must each make a choice as to what we will do with Jesus. Nevertheless, the film is worth the ticket price, and I highly recommend it. The message is powerful, as Clavius finds out, that the hope-filled and holy-humorous Jesus is often found when you least expect Him. And as the Roman points out, to believe, is to never be the same.
“Film has always served to inspire, entertain and educate audiences. Films with prominent faith values tap into a deeply personal place in viewer’s souls—conjuring memories of God’s faithfulness and reminders of His grace. Film can reignite the romance between God and his people in a way that is unmatched in other media.” (Risen screening pamphlet, October 2015)
For more information, visit Risen-Movie.com
Finley is a freelance writer and doctoral student at SEU. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org