Movie Review


By Jeff Laird

The promise of eternal life is a "great recruiting tool." That cutting remark, delivered by the skeptic Clavius in the film Risen, sums up Hollywood's complicated relationship with faith.

In Risen, Joseph Fiennes portrays this cynic, a Roman officer serving under Pontius Pilate. Clavius is tasked with disposing of Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. First, he's sent to speed up Christ's death on the cross. Second, to secure the tomb so the body can't be stolen. Then, to find the body when it comes up missing.

After warring with Jewish zealots and bickering with the Sanhedrin, Clavius is a thorough and content skeptic. At the same time, he's a "true" skeptic: a man committed to reason and evidence. As he investigates the disappearance of "the Nazarene's" body, he pursues more than just the politically correct answer. What he wants is the truth, no matter what it is. That pursuit of reality leads him to consider ideas he'd rather not. It forces him to ask questions he'd never thought needed asking. And, eventually, it leads him to a crisis over the direction of his own life.

The movie industry's general contempt for (and ignorance of) the Bible is hardly a secret. If you learned everything you know about Christianity from Hollywood, you have a low, warped, and unpleasant view of the faith. Not coincidentally, guess where the vast majority of people get their information about the Bible.

That explains a lot, doesn't it?

Even attempts to "recruit" the pocketbooks of believers can fall flat. For every example like The Prince of Egypt, both reasonably accurate and entertaining, there are many more like Noah, or Exodus: Gods and Kings, managing to be both insulting and terrible. On the other hand, there are plenty of specimens such as Fireproof and God's Not Dead, which come across well enough, but are clearly meant to cater to the believer's palate. Conventional wisdom seems to be that there's a border between films believers can embrace, and ones nonbelievers can enjoy.

Risen hits the bullseye and manages to do both. Telling the story of the resurrection through the eyes of a hostile non-believer means it isn't preachy, pious, or filled with insider jargon. In fact, the film does an excellent job of outlining exactly why so many people in and around Jerusalem were willing to believe the impossible: that Jesus of Nazareth came back from the dead. As an apologist, I saw dozens of opportunities to discuss resurrection evidence featured in the film.

At the same time, the core plot is not that of the gospels. It's a tale happening "behind the scenes" of Scripture. As such, the screenwriters took every inch of artistic license they could get. Much of the plot, strictly speaking, isn't even hinted at in the Bible, particularly as the movie nears its end. However, what occurs certainly doesn't contradict the biblical narrative. This, and the stellar acting, make the film engaging for the non-believer, as well.

Acting is well-done all around, particularly by Ralph Fiennes, cast as the lead character, Clavius. Fiennes gives his Roman officer a good balance of depth and strength, making his character arc all the more interesting. While Jesus — referred to on-screen by the more historically accurate "Yeshua" — actually has little to say, his portrayal by Cliff Curtis strikes just the right level of warmth, without being overwrought.

Other characters are up and down in terms of impact. Female characters have some poignant scenes, and are involved in the plot, but feel secondary to the main narrative. Audiences will definitely appreciate the personalities of disciples such as Bartholomew and Peter, whose limited screen time manages to flesh out Jesus' followers as three-dimensional people.

Risen maintains a much lighter, story-based tone than other religious films. And, thankfully, it isn't afraid to portray the vivid realities of faith and belief. The disciples are presented as fallible, limited, faulty people. And yet this gives their faith precisely the ring of truth which engages both Clavius and the audience. In one excellent sequence, Clavius peppers Simon Peter with questions about God, Jesus, and the resurrection. Peter's flustered response is not only honest, it's one even the most knowledgeable believer can sympathize with: "I don't know! I don't know! I don't know!"

Believe it or not, the fundamentals of the gospel even make an appearance. Under interrogation, followers of "the Nazarene" state their willingness to die. The reason, according to those under questioning, is that those who believe in Jesus are promised eternal life. This prompts Clavius's eye-rolling remark about recruiting.

The film's best moment, by far, comes at the turning point of the film. This marks the start of the film's final chapter. While the answer to Clavius' mystery is hardly a secret to the audience, the scene is both surprising and heart-stopping. In this sequence, a raid, Clavius is shattered when he stumbles across a detail he absolutely did not expect. Trust me, you'll know it when you see it. Risen takes a moment that everyone knew was coming and manages to make it dramatic and gripping — a major change in the plot's direction.

Another excellent moment is the point where Clavius finds one of the soldiers assigned to guard the tomb. He's drunk and hiding. When pressed to tell the truth, instead of the Sanhedrin's bought-and-paid-for story, the man offers an embarrassingly fantastic account. The guard's befuddled story, as well as Clavius's reaction, set up much of what's at stake for the rest of the film.

Those stakes become especially clear near the end when Clavius has a chance to have his many questions answered. In typical human fashion, when the moment arrives, he doesn't even know what to ask. And yet, for all his objectivity, he's afraid of "Being wrong, wagering eternity." The answer ties together all the loose ends Clavius' has been searching for, and not just those assigned by Pilate.

As PG-13 rated films go, Risen was fairly tame. There's no crass language, nudity, or sexuality. There is some moderate violence, mostly in the first twenty or so minutes. This features an extended battle scene, as well as the very end of the crucifixion. These moments are not gory, but there's little illusion about what's happening to bodies and body parts. Those sensitive to depictions of war and mayhem might find those early minutes hard to watch.

Risen is certainly not a perfect film, either factually or cinematically. The ending was surprisingly unsatisfying — not as abrupt as Inception, but many viewers will find themselves asking, "Yeah, but what about..." as the credits roll. Some character arcs, such as that of Clavius's assistant Lucius, seem a bit forced.

While nothing in the film was overtly contrary to Scripture (based on a single viewing), the plot is artistic license writ large. Also, at least to this reviewer, the role of women in the resurrection story seemed a bit glossed over. The film pegs Mary Magdalene as a former prostitute, which is a common, but technically non-scriptural assumption. And some of the Jewish religious leaders came across a bit too touchy-feely with Gentiles. In the Bible, Pharisees don't even want to enter a Gentile's home, but in Risen, they're making physical contact.

Then again, it's a movie. Not a Bible study.

As faith-based films go, Risen is a great addition. It's got the cinematic chops to stand on its own merits, and is remarkably respectful to the Scriptures. For those interested in having a fact-based, no-frills conversation about the evidence for the resurrection, it's a great conversation starter. People who prefer a dumbed-down, holier-than-thou, condescending, or dismissive approach are going to be disappointed.

Christians looking for a film that's both informative, entertaining, and faith-friendly are going to be very happy, indeed. Risen is one of the highest-quality Bible-inspired films of recent memory. It's a touchstone for what "God" movies can and should be.

Investigating "eternal life," as it turns out, makes for more than great recruiting. It can inspire a really good film, as well.

Published 2-22-16