The Jesus movies of the past dozen years have followed a trajectory that is almost the complete opposite of their counterparts in the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood.
Back in the 1950s, the earliest movies in this genre — Ben-Hur, The Robe and Quo Vadis — were reluctant to depict Jesus directly, for fear of offending the pious, so instead they told stories about fictitious characters who existed somewhere on the margins of the biblical narrative. It was only in the 1960s, after the phenomenal success of those films, that the studios dared to make films based directly on the gospels, like King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told — films in which Jesus showed his face and spoke his own dialogue1 — though by then, public interest in the genre had begun to wear off.
The Jesus films made in this century have gone in the exact opposite direction. The Passion of the Christ put Jesus front-and-centre, and religious audiences flocked to the theatre in droves — so the films that followed it, such as The Nativity Story and Son of God, have been similarly direct in their own adaptation of the gospels. It is only now, as the more-or-less direct approach has begun to run its course, that filmmakers — including the producers of Risen, The Young Messiah and, yes, the new version of Ben-Hur — have begun to look for newer and less-obvious ways to approach the familiar story.
Thankfully, Risen gets the second wave of Jesus movies off to a decent start. The film, directed by Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) from a script credited to Reynolds and Paul Aiello, follows a Roman tribune named Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) who takes part in the crucifixion of Jesus (Cliff Curtis) and is then given the job of finding the Nazarene’s body after it disappears — and what makes the story work, for the first hour or so at least, is the way the film sticks to Clavius’s jaded, skeptical perspective.
You have to accept a few dramatic conceits. Clavius is first seen putting down a rebellion — and executing Barabbas! — on the outskirts of Jerusalem on the very same day that Jesus is sent to his death. Then, when Clavius returns to the Roman fortress, Pilate (Peter Firth) orders him to go to Golgotha and make sure that the day’s crucifixion victims are finished off, though surely that’s a job that the soldiers who are already there could handle themselves. (If Pilate feels any remorse over the fact that Roman troops died fighting Barabbas mere hours after Pilate let him go, he never shows it.)
Still, the fact that Clavius missed all of the famous moments from the passion narrative — the trials, the priests demanding Jesus’ death, etc. — keeps things interesting. When Clavius and his younger colleague Lucius (Tom Felton) see the sky go dark and feel the earth quake as they are leaving the city, they experience these things as random phenomena, the way many people in Jerusalem would have at the time; Clavius and Lucius are not yet part of the Jesus story, so they have no narrative context in which to put these events. And when Clavius arrives at Golgotha, the focus stays on him and the other Romans. Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) and the mother of Jesus are there too, but they are shot from a distance or kept to the edge of the frame. The film stays with the Roman soldiers for whom these executions, unpleasant as they are, are all in a day’s work.
And then, when the body of Jesus goes missing from its tomb, the film keeps its focus on Clavius and his colleagues as they dig up one body after another and interrogate one person after another in their bid to quell the growing rumours that Jesus might have risen from the dead. But then, about halfway through the film — and ordinarily I would say this was a spoiler, if the trailers hadn’t given it away already — there comes a major, major shift in gears, as the film turns from the story of a man who is outside of the gospel narrative to the story of a man who witnesses everything from the inside. So the thing that made the first hour work so well — the way it defamiliarized the gospels — gives way to an approach that becomes increasingly familiar to those who know the story.
Holding it all together, of course, is Joseph Fiennes, who plays Clavius with the right mix of determination, resignation and, eventually, confusion, as everything he thought he knew is challenged by his experience of the risen Christ. I especially liked the way Clavius, frustrated by his attempts to find the body of Jesus, actually prays to the Jewish God for help at one point, promising to erect temples and organize games in his honour if Yahweh helps Clavius to achieve his mission: it’s precisely how you’d expect a pagan Roman to negotiate with another culture’s deity. I also like the way Clavius wrestles with his doubts after he witnesses the resurrected Jesus: this may be another of the film’s conceits — that a Roman would tag along with the disciples for multiple encounters with the risen Jesus, years before the Church had even begun to debate whether to accept Gentiles in its ranks — but for those of us who have sometimes wished that Jesus would resolve our doubts by appearing to us personally the way he did to Thomas and the others, Fiennes nicely captures the fact that even such an encounter might not resolve everything. (Matthew 28:17 does tell us that some of those who saw the risen Jesus “doubted”, and this is one of the few films I have ever seen that acknowledges this fact.)
My favorite performance, though, might be that of Richard Atwill, who plays Polybius, one of the two soldiers who guards the tomb. He only has a few scenes, but they leave a lasting impression: the last time we see Polybius, he is sitting in a tavern, trying to drown his memories in strong drink, and he begs Clavius to give him a rational explanation for what he saw at the tomb. We often talk about the centurion who recognized the righteousness of Jesus at Golgotha, but we don’t often talk about what happened to the soldiers who guarded the tomb and thus became the only people to actually witness the Resurrection as it happened — and it’s sobering to think that these men, who from one point of view were the most privileged witnesses to history ever, may have been traumatized by the experience: wounded, as it were, but never healed.
More than anything else, this movie is haunted by death. The first time we see Jesus — or Yeshua, as he is called in this film — he is already dead, his vacant eyes as lifeless and soulless as any corpse’s. One of the thieves, his legs broken by the Romans, gasps desperately for air while a soldier stands below him, gently urging him to let go of his last breath. The bodies of the thieves are dumped in a ditch not far from the crosses, the soldiers kicking skulls aside as they go. Clavius presides over a solemn ceremony where the bodies of the Romans who died battling Barabbas are cremated (Pilate later remarks that Clavius smells of “meat”). And when Clavius searches for the body of Jesus, he digs up one bloated, rotting, fly-attracting corpse after another — prompting Lucius to vomit and Pilate to remark that one day they’ll all be just as dead as the rest.
This focus on death, of course, serves to underscore the significance of the Resurrection: the way Christ defeated death and, through his triumph, has made eternal life for all people possible. But it never feels like the set-up for a theological punchline: the fact that Clavius is tired of all the death in the world has an integrity all its own.
There are other things to like about the film, such as its depiction of the Romans fighting in a “tortoise” formation — the camera at one point sitting within the “tortoise” and catching bursts of light between the shields as the soldiers thrust their swords through the gaps — as well as the film’s contribution to the growing trend of casting actors as Jesus who don’t conform to the blond-haired, blue-eyed stereotypes of yore. I was also struck by the landscape the apostles walk through on the way to Galilee: rows of jagged rocks that stick out of the ground like shark’s teeth. (Even nature seems hostile.)
Some things don’t work so well. The attempts at humour, for one thing, are all over the place, from a gag that depends on the western tradition that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute to a scene in which Clavius mistakes Peter (Stewart Scudamore) for a bandit and wounds him on the road to Galilee; we’re supposed to laugh at Peter’s frustration with Clavius, but all I kept wondering was why the wound didn’t become infected. And then there is Clavius’s interrogation of Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan), who is so giddy with joy that — as my friend Matt Page put it — he almost seems stoned. (The scene also doesn’t make a lot of sense: near the beginning, Bartholomew says the disciples are “few for now,” but at the end he practically gloats that they are “everywhere!”)
And the dramatic conceits — some of which I alluded to above — keep coming up. Does it really make sense that a Roman officer (and one who presided over the Crucifixion, at that) would get to tag along with the disciples at a time when they were hiding from the Jewish leaders? Or that Clavius would be privy to some of the most intimate moments between Jesus and his inner circle? When Clavius asks one of the disciples what was so special about Jesus in the first place, a leper conveniently appears out of nowhere, just so Jesus can walk over and heal the guy. I know, I know: show, don’t tell. But still.
There are lots of other things one could nitpick, too: The disciples begin the Lord’s Prayer by saying, “Yahweh, hallowed is your name” (rather than “Our Father in Heaven…”), which feels doubly wrong when you consider that pious Jews tend to avoid saying God’s name directly, and that one of the big themes of Jesus’ ministry was God’s relationship to us as our Father. Tiberius makes a visit to Palestine in this movie, just as he did in A.D. The Bible Continues, even though the historical Tiberius was a notorious recluse at this point in his life and wouldn’t have gone anywhere near this part of the Empire. If you pay close attention to the dialogue, it seems that the Ascension happens only two or three weeks after the Resurrection in this film, when in fact it happened almost six weeks afterwards. And the Ascension takes place in Galilee, even though the New Testament says it took place just a few minutes’ walk outside of Jerusalem.
Many of these small details can be forgiven as acts of narrative expedience. (The gospels are clear that Pilate was afraid the Emperor would hear bad things about his handling of the Jesus case; it’s more dramatic if Pilate thinks the Emperor is already on his way to visit him in person.) The larger problem, though, is how the film sort of gives up on its own premise about halfway through. Movies, as Roger Ebert liked to say, are empathy machines, and one of the great things about Risen for its first hour or so is how it allows us to imagine what it would have been like to be on the outside of this story. After the big turning point in the upper room, however, it becomes very much an insider’s story — and one that assumes the audience’s familiarity with the back-story, at that: at one point Jesus takes Peter aside to forgive him for denying him on the night of his arrest, and the moment seems to come out of nowhere because we never saw or heard about the denial in the first place, and in any case this is supposed to be Clavius’s story, not Peter’s. Instead of opening up the story to non-believers, it feels like the filmmakers are, by this point, ticking off a list of familiar stories that believers would want to see.
That said, there is still a lot to like about Risen. It’s an imaginative and reasonably grounded take on an old story, and it just might encourage people — both inside the church and out — to step outside their comfort zones a little and imagine how the world looks from the other side’s point of view. And that is no small thing.
1. The 1951 version of Quo Vadis did show Jesus’ face, but only in a static flashback patterned after a Renaissance painting. Jesus’ voice could also be heard, briefly, in the 1953 films Salome and The Robe, but his face was never shown. It was not until the 1960s that audiences could see the face of Jesus and hear his voice in a major Hollywood film — and for more than a few seconds, at that.