The Greatest Story Ever Told is also one of the most oft told cinematic tales. So how can filmmakers bring a fresh take to Jesus’ death and resurrection? Directors often succumb to the digital temptation of bigger, louder, faster in an effort to instill faith in their audiences. Unfortunately, relying on spectacle only builds fascination with the special effects.
Risen restores my faith in the Gospel film by doing the hard work of finding a new angle. It places us within the dramatic moment when Jesus died, when questions surrounding the whereabouts of his body swirled around Jerusalem. Risen is a detective story told through the eyes of a Roman soldier tasked with finding Jesus’ dead body before a nascent religious/political uprising takes root. How refreshing to see a film about faith that dares to dabble in mystery.
Risen offers a bracing alternative to the cheesy sets, bad acting, and garish effects we’ve come to expect from the burgeoning ‘Christian’ film genre. It is a polished, professional, and encouraging reminder that the word ‘Christian’ should never be turned into an adjective. It is first, foremost and always a noun, describing a follower of Jesus. What gets under the Roman’s skin? A great cloud of witnesses of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. While their experience of Yeshua varies greater, the transformation of their pallor speaks volumes. They haven’t seen a ghost. Rather, they’ve encountered their risen lord and been called to a movement far beyond the political realities of the Roman occupation in Israel.
Joseph Fiennes brings considerable gravitas to his role as Roman military tribune, Clavius. He carries the weight of too many battles on his soldiers. The sight of blood and smell of bodies offers no rush to his senses. Clavius is tired of the fighting, sick of the rebellions, ready to settle down far from war. His prayers to Mars, the god of war, never seem to be answered. His boss, Pontius Pilate, demands that Clavius clean up yet another mess, the crucifixion of the Nazarene.
Clavius is accompanied on his investigation by an eager understudy, Lucius. Tom Felton (of Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter fame) conveys the blind ambition that sends far too many well-intentioned young men into battle. Lucius is ready to serve the empire, but unprepared for the ethical conundrums coming his way.
Screenwriter Paul Aiello and director Kevin Reynolds take Clavius and Lucius to the empty tomb, interviewing the Romans assigned to guard it. The soldiers have concocted elaborate stories to cover their tracks, turning the disappearance of Jesus’ body into a robbery. Yet, Yeshua’s followers seem uninterested in fomenting a political uprising. They have heavenly glory in their eyes, whether testifying as a defiant former prostitute like Mary Magdalene or a blissed out Bartholomew. Clavius redoubles his efforts, paying informants, and shaking down the guards. What he discovers shakes him to the core.
In Risen, Jesus is not the fair skinned, blue-eyed Brit we’ve often seen in biblical epics. Accomplished Maori actor Cliff Curtis plays Yeshua with a stillness and warmth that startles the Roman tribune. Sure, Yeshua can heal the sick and reel in a boatload of fish, but he speaks into Clavius’ life and especially his pain, in compelling ways. Will Clavius cast off his Roman armor to join Yeshua’s merry band of followers? Simon Peter comes across as a burly and fearless leader, willing to endure slings and arrows for just one more encounter with his risen Lord. We sense just how small and marginalized these early disciples were. Risen portrays an underground movement, on the run, yet eager to share their new-found faith along the way. And what is the way? The first Christians have no big plans to subvert an empire or build an international institution. They tend to put one foot in front of another, living by faith, unsure where they may lay their head on any given night.
Risen snaps us back to the genesis of Christianity, when a handful of followers simply told others what they had seen and heard. The reality of the resurrection is not dependent upon special effects, but riveting testimonies. Risen is a rare religious film that has faith in the audience. The filmmakers dare to believe that moviegoers prefer subtlety rather than pandering, complexity instead of manipulation. May their faith be rewarded.