There are many things that one could put on the desideratum list when it comes to swords and sandals cinematic epics involving the story of Jesus. At the top of the list would be— ‘Please dear God, let them get the story right this time’. Despite some reviews already out, it is not entirely correct to say ‘they got the story right this time’. For one thing they indulged the medieval legend that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Nope. To the contrary she was demon possessed, not a prostitute. She is not to be identified with either the woman in John 7.53-8.11 or the sinner woman in Luke 7. Mary Magdalene doesn’t show up in Luke’s story until Lk. 8.1-3, not before, and there we are told that seven demons were cast out of her by Jesus. So enough with the ‘Mary the prostitute’ fantasy caused by blending of discrete Biblical stories together in somebody’s mental cuisinart. For another thing, like the series A.D. last year, once again we hear the total myth that ‘Santa Claus’ is coming to town, by which I mean the Roman Emperor Tiberius is coming to Jerusalem during the reign of Pontius Pilate just after Jesus’ death. Nope. Tiberius had not interest, inclination or plans to leave Capri or Italy. This is total mythology, and in the case of the movie ‘Risen’ it is unnecessary mythology. It is a story line that comes to nothing, and is of no consequence to the ‘Risen’ plot. Also clearly wherever this movie was filmed, it was not Jerusalem and Galilee. For one thing there are not huge mountains surrounding the eastern shore of the sea of Galilee. For another thing Jerusalem did not look that much like a desert in April after the winter torrents. And perhaps most importantly, there doesn’t seem to have been any ongoing manhunt for the body of Jesus after Easter by either Roman or Jewish officials. The story in Matthew of course is that the guards were bribed by the Jewish officials to keep silent about what happened at the tomb that Sunday morning (cf. Mt. 28.11-15). End of story, no manhunt. That’s all on one side of the ledger, but fortunately there is another side to the story.
On the good side of things the following can be listed: 1) Joseph Fiennes is terrific as the tribune set the task by Pilate to track down the body of the Nazarene. He is the younger brother of the more well known Ralph Fiennes, but those of you who saw and loved ‘Shakespeare in Love’ from 1998 may recognize him as he played William Shakespeare! Fiennes’ performance is worth seeing all by itself. It is convincing, and at least Kevin Reynolds the producer cared enough to get the Romans mostly right in this story. Peter Firth is also quite good as Pilate. 2) finally, finally we have a Middle Eastern looking Jesus on film, played by Cliff Curtis. He is actually from New Zealand, and appears to have some Maori blood in him. But at least they have forsaken the ridiculous blond haired blue eyed Jesus of previous films; 3) most of the disciples are believable, except the overly giddy Bartholomew. This does give a lighter touch to the film, but at the cost of making him seem silly, except for his honesty about doubting Jesus’ prediction about his resurrection beyond death. The portrayal of Mary Magdalene by Maria Botto is o.k., if she was just not depicted as a prostitute, whom many Roman soldiers seem to have known intimately. Much better is the portrayal of Peter as an older man, at a loss for words to explain what has just happened to Jesus. I would have been at a loss for words too. 4) the risen Jesus is depicted as a tangible human being, not a spirit, not a ghost, and the appearances of the risen Jesus are well done and believable, not depicted as visions. The writer, Mark Aiello along with Reynolds apparently couldn’t resist throwing in an extra miracle by the risen Jesus in Galilee, healing a many with leprosy. 5) the cinematography is well done, nothing cheesy about it, nor do they overdo the C.G. 6) the movie doesn’t have any real dead spots, and at a sleek one hour and 47 minutes, the plot moves along quickly, as basically a tale about how one of Pilate’s tribunes could actually become a follower of Jesus, and a witness to the risen Lord. Since Jesus did in fact appear to a nonbeliever like Saul of Tarsus, the story is plausible— a sort of Cornelius story, before Cornelius. I do have to say however that the story is probably set a bit too late— A.D. 33, rather than A.D. 30, but that much is debatable.
On the whole, and with the provisos and caveat emptors listed, this is a good film for Christians and their friends and family to see at Easter, very much better than some films of this ilk. It gets the most crucial parts of the story right, and does not provide us with a jaundiced anti-miraculous approach to the material. Kudos to Affirm Films (a subdivision of Sony) for taking this story on, and telling it in a faith friendly way. I understand that there are always trade offs in a story that is partly fiction but intends to be historical fiction, with the history part being the most crucial part. On the whole there is more to commend and less to object to, than some of the things we saw last year in the A.D. TV series. Stay tuned for the Anne Rice ‘Out of Egypt’ film next month, a tale of ‘the Young Messiah’ which mixes the Gospel with later apocryphal material from the Apocryphon of James and elsewhere.