How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth? — Sherlock Holmes
After hearing good things about the new Christian film Risen, I finally got the chance to see it for myself this week. Offering a fresh twist on the Easter story, it walks through the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection from the perspective of a Roman tribune named Clavius. Clavius is tasked by Pilate to find Jesus’ missing corpse and quash pesky resurrection rumors, preferably before Tiberius Caesar arrives for a check-up. The result feels like a 1st century crime procedural, as Clavius examines the scene, collects witness testimony, and weighs multiple explanations of the evidence he gathers. The closer he gets to unraveling the mystery, the more uneasy he becomes.
Before diving into what I thought of Risen, I want to say a few words about Christian movies in general. As the market for Christian films has grown, my attitude towards them has run the gamut from *CRINGE* to “Hey, this is actually okay.” I am reluctant to bash the Christian film industry writ large, because I am reluctant to come off as a snide, self-important critic of Christian culture writ large. (But that’s a topic for another day. I think I’ll call it “How I Somehow Avoided Becoming a Christian Culture Snob.”) I even challenged John Mark Reynolds when he put out a scathing critique of the Kendrick Brothers’ War Room, despite the fact that I didn’t see the film and frankly still don’t have a burning desire to do so. I did it because I want to be fair, and I want to give Christian filmmakers their due.
And yet… I still love movies. And the movie-lover in me can’t deny that too many Christian films are simply not that well put together, by any objective standard of film-making.
So, it gives me great pleasure to report that Risen is not just a good Christian movie. It’s a good movie, full stop.
*The premise is smart and intriguing. Historically, we know Tiberius never actually visited Jerusalem, and Pilate was never paranoid enough to worry about what would happen if the rumors of Jesus’ resurrection gained steam. Still, it’s a “what-if” scenario that’s not beyond the realm of plausibility. And the concept of turning the resurrection into a detective story is brilliant, reminding us of how the fantastical was grounded in the concrete.
*A good idea alone does not a good script make. Thankfully, for around 2/3 of the film, Risen is rock-solid in the script department. One thing that sets it apart is its understatement. Inexperienced script-writers rush to spell everything out, and this is par for the course in most films with a Christian theme. Co-writers Kevin Reynolds and Paul Aiello aren’t exempt from this problem (that’s the other 1/3), but they are good enough to understand the power of leaving things unsaid, or unexplained. When the first Roman guard tells Clavius the “official” story that the disciples stole the body, stubbornly refusing to say more, it’s arguably even better than the scene where the other guard finally describes what really happened.
Reynolds and Aiello also have a real ear for dialogue in the Roman sequences. Pretty much all of Pilate’s scenes are gold, but I particularly loved the scenes between him and Caiaphas. Though the dialogue is fictional, it nails what we get from Scripture about their personalities. Pilate is corrupt and complacent, but secretly more uneasy than he lets on. Caiaphas is smarmy and calculating, knowing exactly how to yank Pilate’s chain to get what he wants. Their friction-filled interactions yield dry humor that’s very much in the spirit of the gospels themselves.
*The acting. Translation: the budget. Let’s be fair, if you want to get real actors on your project, you need to convince them that it’s worth their time, and oftentimes the money just isn’t there. But thanks to Affirm Films, Risen had some money to work with, and the area where the viewer feels it most is not the sets, the effects or the cinematography. It’s the acting. To be specific, British acting. You can always count on the British.
Clavius is played by Joseph Fiennes, a British pro who’s become a valuable asset to faith-based films (he played Martin Luther in Luther and is slated to play Eric Liddell in an upcoming film about his last days in China). Curiously, he is actually not a practicing Christian, as I thought at first, but he’s an intelligent and sensitive actor who clearly respects Christianity. And he does his homework too. Not only did he study under some experts in gladiatorial tactics to give Clavius a convincing physical presence, he also spoke at length with a detective to prepare mentally for the role. He says in an interview, “I felt that Clavius was a very intellectual and analytical, almost a surgical mind. So suddenly you have this man who thinks in this very analytical and ruthless way charged with finding a body, and then you get him up against something far bigger and more spiritual then you could ever imagine. I love that kind of juxtaposition.”
However, this isn’t one of those films that rides on just one stand-out performance. There’s also veteran character actor Peter Firth, who’s just delightful as Pilate. It helps that he has good dialogue to work with, but his delivery is wonderfully assured and often very funny, in a bone-dry, British way.
Tom Felton (aka Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter) is the biggest name on the slate, though he plays a supporting role as Clavius’s right-hand man. He’s very solid, as are the two actors who play the Roman guards. I don’t even know who those guys are, but they turned in terrific performances.
*It’s probably not too much of a spoiler to reveal that this film does ultimately depict the resurrected Jesus and his disciples. Setting aside my criticisms of some of the writing in these scenes, which I’ll get to in a moment, I will say that several moments in this film genuinely touched me on a spiritual level. Any good portrayal of Christ must balance strength and tenderness. I think Jim Caviezel hit that balance perfectly in The Passion. (And I’m not just saying that because I have a huge crush on Jim Caviezel. I do have a huge crush on Jim Caviezel, but that’s entirely beside the point.) Actor Cliff Curtis doesn’t quite achieve that perfect balance in this film, but while he errs on the side of tenderness more than I’d prefer, his performance is not without strength too. When he makes eye contact with a character, I feel as if I’ve actually gotten a taste of what an encounter with Christ might have been like.
The shooting was not done on location, but the Isle of Malta made a gorgeous stand-in for Galilee. Scenes shot at night had a particularly magical quality.
*A good score gives an already solid film that extra lift that kicks it up a notch. Spanish composer Roque Banos does some really fine work here. Probably my favorite cue is the miracle of the fishes on the Sea of Galilee, from John 21. Mysterious foreign objects tend to get suddenly lodged in my eye when it peaks around 2:40.
*Sadly, the script loses its way just where it needs to be strongest: the introduction of Jesus and his disciples in act three. The fact that there are two co-writers made me wonder if one of them wrote the first two acts and the other one wrote the third, so stark was the contrast in quality. Whoever it was decided to turn the disciples into hippy goofballs. Mary Magdalene isn’t much better, though the actress does her best with what she has. Her lines and the disciples’ lines are permeated with painfully anachronistic “heart” language. (Even Jesus uses the phrase “Speak your heart.” No, really.)
The worst offender is Bartholomew, the main talker of the group (presumably because he’s unknown, so viewers wouldn’t rebel when he says stuff like “Our only weapon is love.”) Bartholomew keeps popping up over and over to put a button on scenes that otherwise might have some emotional weight. It’s truly insufferable. The one bright spot among the disciples is Peter, who’s played with fire and gusto. If Bartholomew is trying to be Merry or Pippin, Peter is Gimli, and for the most part it works. But some of his dialogue is also shallow. And he’s on hugging terms with (SPOILERS) Clavius by the film’s end, which shows a complete tin ear for Jewish culture and for Peter’s own character (remember how God had to twist his arm to eat with Cornelius?)
*Besides being shakily written, that third act is just too long. Considering that the climax really comes in act two when (SPOILERS, SPOILERS, HERE BE SPOILERS) Clavius finds Jesus and the disciples in the upper room, a 45-minute post-climax feels rather lengthy. The motif of making Clavius an extra tagalong character with the disciples is a lazy storytelling crutch, lacking the freshness that drove the first two acts along. Perhaps it would have packed more of a punch if the writing were stronger.
*The film-makers didn’t want to portray scenes of Jesus’ pre-crucifixion ministry, but they still wanted to shoe-horn a healing miracle into a post-Resurrection scene. This comes off as trying to have their cake and eat it too. It doesn’t help that the setup is painfully contrived and pounded home by the ever-helpful Bartholomew. (Nevertheless, Cliff Curtis plays it well and manages to sell the moment despite the surrounding awkwardness.)
*The film is largely well-researched, but one glaring flaw is its depiction of burial practices. Crucified bodies are thrown in a mass open grave and left to rot, but in fact, the Jews were expected to give even strangers a minimally decent burial. This notion owes more to John Dominic Crossan’s revisionism and less to an accurate account of what Jewish customs of the day actually were.
*While there’s nothing heretical in the portrayal of Christ, and while individual moments with him have power, the viewer is still left by the end with no real understanding of what his death and resurrection actually signified. For that matter, the viewer is left with an incomplete understanding of who Jesus was. True, it could be argued that the disciples didn’t fully grasp this themselves (even Christ’s divinity), and we are seeing things from their perspective. Still, I expected more from scenes where Jesus has a little dialogue. When Clavius speaks with him and has his (YUUUUGE SPOILER) conversion moment, it’s not that it’s a bad moment, but it’s lacking something. Jesus was constantly making analogies for himself, hammering home his equality with the Father, explaining that he was the only way to life and salvation and the only one with the power to forgive sins. These things are simply not brought out in what he says to Clavius. It’s vague enough that practically nobody could be offended or challenged by it. And that’s a problem, because Jesus was nothing if not challenging.
Bottom line: This is being touted as a Christian movie you could actually take an atheist friend to see and not be embarrassed. This is almost true. Unfortunately, the problems with the script’s third act are bad enough that I’m still not convinced this would be a success. Which is a shame, because those first two acts were so, so good. In fact, they surprised me so much with how good they were that I think the third act was more of a letdown than it normally would have been, which is, perhaps, not entirely fair. Still, it could have risen to that same level had the writers’ ears not suddenly turned into tin when they began creating dialogue for their non-Roman characters. But, that being said, this is certainly a movie that Christians should see and enjoy. We’ve come a long way as a culture since biblical epics like The Robe and The Ten Commandments were considered mainstream fare. Risen gives me hope that there is still a market for that sort of film-making that can attract real talent, even talent outside the church.
Rating: 4 stars