March 7, 2016
Over the last few years, movies about Christianity have begun to trickle into the theaters with more frequency. We've had Old Testament stories like Noah (2014) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). We've had contemporary family dramas like Courageous (2011) and War Room (2015). We've even had apologetics lessons like God's Not Dead (2014). (It's probably best to forget about the family comedies like Saving Christmas (2014) and Mom's Night Out (2014).)
This year, however, Jesus shows up at the movies. The Young Messiah, which comes out at Easter, imagines Jesus' childhood, and this summer a remake of Ben-Hur is scheduled to hit theaters. But before we get to see Jesus' youth and journey to the cross, we have Risen which depicts the aftermath of the crucifixion.
Risen, which was directed by Kevin Reynolds and stars Joseph Fiennes, has a clever premise--tell the story of Jesus' resurrection from the point of view of a Roman soldier. The early parts of the movie hinge on this great mystery. What happened to Jesus' body?
Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a tired military tribune trying to keep the peace in Roman occupied Judaea. Clavius witnesses the crucifixion, and Pilate commissions him with finding Jesus' body when it goes missing three days later. Pilate worries that the missing body could lead to unrest in Jerusalem, and he gives Clavius only a few days to conduct his investigation. Clavius interrogates Jews, and he digs up corpses. But his main objective is to find the disciples, because he believes that if he finds the disciples, then he'll find Jesus' body. Given the title of the movie, I don't think I'm spoiling anything by revealing that Clavius finds Jesus but finds him alive and well.
Risen isn't so much a story about the resurrection as it is about our reactions to the resurrection. The various Romans in the story represent different responses that unbelievers have when confronted with the empty tomb. Pilate needs for the resurrection to be a hoax in order to maintain the status quo; anything else is unacceptable. The tomb's guards don't have the ability to process what they've seen so they try to suppress the knowledge of the truth. Clavius represents the agnostic who is compelled to look at the evidence and follow it wherever it leads. Then we have the disciples who live in the joy of the knowledge that Jesus lives.
Reynolds takes a few liberties with the story in order to insert his Roman soldier, but he gets the most important thing right. In Risen, just as in the gospel accounts, Jesus Christ is bodily raised from the dead. However, though Reynolds gets the main theological point right, some aspects of the movie are less than satisfying.
Reynolds's depiction of the Roman response to the resurrection is excellent, but his depiction of the disciples leaves much to be desired. When we eventually see the disciples, we see that Reynolds has chosen to conform them to modern Christian stereotypes of what Jews looked like. For some reason all first-century Jews must have long hair and ragged beards. Why do God's chosen people not understand personal grooming? He sticks yarmulkes on their heads, which they almost certainly wouldn't have been wearing, and he makes them all call God "Yahweh," which they certainly would not have done. To make matters worse, Stewart Scudamore, who plays Simon Peter, seems to take his inspiration for the role from Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof rather than from the Peter of the Bible. Reynolds's disciples are a parody.
What I found most disappointing, however, was the message that Jesus' followers offer when asked about what they had experienced. When Clavius interrogates Mary Magdalene, she answers with cryptic mystical nonsense. Clavius thinks she is crazy, but Reynolds wants us to feel that her encounter with Jesus has left her with a deep understanding of faith. I think she just sounds confused. Next, Clavius confronts Bartholomew. Bartholomew reminded me of a giddy youth minister, saying the kinds of things a giddy youth minister might say. That's not a compliment, by the way.
The disciples don't talk like people who have been shown from the Scriptures that the Christ must suffer, die, and rise again. They actually don't seem to have any idea why these wonderful things have happened. The Jews knew that a blood sacrifice for sin was necessary in order for them to be acceptable to God, but no one mentions sin and repentance in this movie. Jesus tells them to preach his gospel, but the closest any disciple gets to explicating that gospel is that we conquer with love, not the sword. That's just not going to cut it. Is it any wonder that Clavius is still a little confused about what he's witnessed at the end of the movie? He's witnessed God's Son rise from the dead, but no one has told him why God's Son would go through all this trouble in the first place. Was Reynolds afraid that the idea of an atonement for sin would be off-putting for some Christians and non-Christians alike?
Or we could give Reynolds the benefit of the doubt. One could argue that he wants us to see the disciples as goofy and clueless because they haven't yet received the Spirit at Pentecost. The gospels tell us that even right before the ascension the disciples still didn't quite get it, but if this was Reynolds's intent, I think he overplayed it.
Theological questions aside, is Risen a good movie? That depends on which standard one judges it by. It's a fairly middling effort as films go, but if you compare it only to other faith-based movies, it's excellent. A studio might spend big money on an Old Testament epic since Jesus is safely absent, but most faith-based movies suffer from low budgets and sentimentality. Risen avoids many of the pitfalls we see in other movies marketed to a Christian audience. The budget is large enough to keep the sets from being embarrassing, though not large enough to give the movie any epic scale. Joseph Fiennes is a talented actor who can make even somewhat awkward dialogue sound refined. Fiennes carries every scene, which tends to disguise the weakness in some of the other actors' performances.
The scenes featuring the Romans are often moving and thoughtful, and the movie is at its best when it asks the question, "What happened to Jesus' body?" When it's time to answer that question, however, things start to fall apart. The hyper-spiritualized sentimentality that characterizes contemporary Christianity has worked its way into the explanation. The schmaltz is not as bad as most other faith-based movies, but it's there nonetheless.
Perhaps, however, this is just a limitation of the medium. Films seem better equipped to ask questions rather than answer them. Films, whether they are faith-based or secular, start to break down when they get preachy, but there's a much greater temptation to get preachy when making a movie about faith. Risen would have been a better movie if it had simply followed through with its highly original premise--look at the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus through the eyes of an agnostic Roman--and let the audience grapple with the implications of that truth.