Review: Resurrection (dir. Ciaran Donnelly, 2021)

Review: Resurrection (dir. Ciaran Donnelly, 2021) March 26, 2021

People have been re-packaging stories about Jesus for a long, long time.

Some would say the practice goes back to the gospels themselves, as most scholars believe that the strong word-for-word correspondence between Matthew, Mark and Luke indicates they were borrowing from each other or copying the same sources.

Similarly, filmmakers going back to the silent era have often re-edited their Jesus films for re-release, adding or subtracting vignettes as they saw fit.

Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have done it twice now with their own Bible projects. First, they took the Jesus-themed episodes from their 2013 miniseries The Bible and turned them into a theatrical movie called Son of God. And now they have taken the first four episodes of their 2015 series A.D. The Bible Continues and repackaged them as a feature-length film called Resurrection, premiering this Saturday on Discovery+.

Like Son of God, Resurrection adds some new footage, deletes some scenes entirely, and significantly re-edits much of the footage that remains. And what’s particularly striking about Resurrection is how uniquely central the Resurrection is to this movie.

Most Jesus films have treated the Resurrection as little more than an afterthought, and some have avoided any direct depiction of it at all. One noteworthy exception is Risen, in which a Roman soldier investigates the disappearance of Jesus’ body and ends up witnessing some of the Resurrection appearances, up to and including the Ascension.

Resurrection, which is based on a series that was based primarily on the first ten chapters in the Book of Acts, goes even further than that. It starts with the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, lingers with the disciples as they process the death of their leader, and then follows their story all the way to Pentecost and the rise of the early Church — and it places the Resurrection almost exactly at the centre of the narrative, halfway into the movie’s runtime, to emphasize that this was the hinge moment in all of human history.

I wrote about the TV series extensively when it first aired six years ago, so you can follow the links at the end of this post to see what I said back then about the four episodes this movie is based on. I do want to comment briefly on some of the changes, though.

For starters, the movie has cut most of the non-biblical material from the series, thus greatly reducing the roles of, say, Boaz the Zealot or Caiaphas’s wife Leah.

That being said, parts of those other storylines remain in this film because they were so inextricably interwoven with the biblical material to begin with. Thus, for example, we still get a brief subplot in which some Zealots create a diversion to help the disciples leave Jerusalem while the Roman soldiers are still looking for the followers of Jesus.

There are also some scenes of Pilate’s men catching and killing the soldiers who failed to stop the angel from opening Jesus’ tomb, and we see Pilate and the Jewish high priest Caiaphas argue over how to deal with the disappearance of Jesus’ body, long after the last conversation between those two men took place in the biblical account.

Fragments of other subplots are still there if you know where to look for them. Peter’s daughter Maya — a character who was invented just for the series — has been cut from the story entirely, though she’s still in some of the group shots with the disciples.

Deleting Maya from the movie results in at least one dramatic oddity, as Peter suddenly tells the disciples to pray, in the moments before the Holy Spirit arrives at Pentecost, for no apparent reason. In the series, his call to prayer was motivated by a thought that occurred to him during a chat with his daughter on the roof of the house.

In addition to deleting entire scenes and storylines from the series, the movie adds some footage that has never been seen before, such as an extended conversation between Joseph of Arimathea and the women at the tomb as they prepare Jesus’ body for burial.

Most striking, to me, is an added shot from the moment of the Resurrection itself, when the camera is inside the tomb, looking out through the opening towards the angel and, behind him, the soldiers — and we see a topless Jesus step into the frame.

Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any other films that have included a shot like that. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ depicted the inside of the tomb at the moment of the Resurrection — it also, like Resurrection, hinted that the resurrected Jesus was naked — but even Gibson didn’t look out the open door like this.

(Incidentally, some theologians have objected to Gibson’s depiction of the Resurrection, and would presumably object to the new shot in this film too, because, they argue, the resurrected Jesus was no longer bound by physical limitations — he could pass through walls etc. — and thus, Jesus did not need to be let out of the tomb. Instead, they argue, the angel rolled the stone away to let us in, to show us the tomb was already empty.)

Many other tweaks have been made to the scenes that were carried over from the series to the film. The film has a letterboxed widescreen aspect ratio, for one thing — it was originally intended for theatrical release, before the producers realized how long theatres would stay closed — and a number of close-ups have been replaced with wider shots.

Also, at least one night scene from the series — in which John describes the Crucifixion to the disciples who weren’t there — has been changed into a daytime scene.

Longtime readers of this blog may recall that I once posted a detailed analysis of some of the changes that Son of God made to The Bible. (You can download the spreadsheet here.) I thought about doing something similar for A.D. and Resurrection, but after watching the film side-by-side with the first episode of the series for the first half-hour of the movie’s runtime, I gave up. Many of the changes are minor, but there are a lot of them.

So, suffice it to say that the movie is its own thing, at the editorial level, even if there isn’t that much new in terms of the basic content. Again, it’s a little like studying the minor changes and major agreements between the Synoptic gospels. I would never say that watching a movie is comparable to studying the Bible, but comparing two versions of the same basic cinematic material can be a fun kind of practice for comparing two or more versions of the same basic written material. It can help you notice how tweaks are made — and, more importantly, it can get you thinking about why they were made.

If you’re a fan of A.D., you’ll probably want to see this alternate version of the story. If you’re not, you probably won’t. And if you’re somewhere in-between — if you were drawn to the series for its biblical content but didn’t care for all the fictitious storylines that were piled on top of it — then this movie might be what you’re looking for.

But perhaps what’s most remarkable about the film is how it puts the Resurrection of Jesus centre-stage in a drama that connects the gospels to the less-often-dramatized Acts of the Apostles. Starting with the events of Holy Week and continuing all the way to Pentecost, it just might be the first film that covers the entire Paschal season.

A.D. The Bible Continues episode recaps:

CT Movies: one | two | three | four | five | six | seven | eight | nine | ten | eleven | twelve

FilmChat: one | two | three | four | five | six | seven | eight | nine | ten | eleven | twelve

A.D. The Bible Continues interviews:

Mark Burnett & Roma Downey (producers)

Juan Pablo di Pace (actor, Jesus)

Chipo Chung (actress, Mary Magdalene)

Other TV show episode guides:

The Bible: one-two | three-four | five-six | seven-eight | nine-ten

The Chosen season one: zero | one | two | three | four | five | six | seven | eight

Of Kings and Prophets: one | two | three | four | five | six | seven | eight | nine

Prophet Joseph: 1-2 | 3-4 | 5-6 | 7-8 | 9-10 | 11-12 | 13-14 | 15-16 | 17-18 | 19-20 | 21-22 | 23-24 | 25-26 | 27-28 | 29-30 | 31-32 | 33-34 | 35-36 | 37-38 | 39-40 | 41-42 | 43-45

Movie scene guides:

Risen | The Young Messiah | Paul, Apostle of Christ | Mary Magdalene

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