early in risen there is a small moment where joseph fiennes’ protagonist, a roman tribune named clavius, returning to jerusalem after a bloody skirmish with a cell of fanatical jewish rebels, is summoned before pontius pilate. Annoyed, Clavius objects, “I’m still sticky with dirt.”
there’s a nice archaic quality to that line, a sense of clavius as a man of a different time and place than our own. I appreciate a period film that allows the characters to feel somewhat alien to us, rather than modern Westerners playing dress-up.
Directed by Kevin Reynolds (The Count of Monte Cristo), who co-wrote with Paul Aiello, Risen is at his best in the opening scenes, which depict the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday from a decidedly unknown perspective. perspective. risen might be the only jesus movie where we first meet jesus on the cross, already dead or nearly dead.
risen is concerned enough to defamiliarize this all-too-familiar story so that viewers see once again that the name jesus is always given in the hebrew form, yeshua. pedro is still pedro and not cefas (or petros), and the name maria, instead of miriam, is used for both the mother of jesus and the magdalena, but neither of these names is used much, and anyway Jesus is the name that counts the most.
risen takes risks with some unconventional choices and sometimes they pay off. the depiction of the roman guards at the tomb of joseph of arimathea as a pair of undisciplined louts who get drunk and apparently fall asleep could raise pious eyebrows in those who prefer to imagine the best of rome guarding the body of jesus, to better certify the miracle of easter morning But the film’s drama, at least for the first half, hinges on uncertainty about exactly what happened, and this version certainly isn’t far-fetched.
Then, however, comes a key turning point where the uncertainty fades, and with it much of the film’s interest. Risen is essentially an update on a genre from the golden age that Stephen Whitty called the “good pagan movie”: movies like Quo Vadis and The Robe, which tell the Christian story from the perspective of a skeptical Roman citizen or some other unbeliever. who comes to faith. and repentance, usually in the last act. (The same plot structure was used in pious movies set in the present day, eg Come to the Stable.)
risen positions this conversion in the middle of the film, which is both an ambitious and risky move. it is ambitious because structuring the story to climax at conversion is a safe but limiting option. “An encounter with Christ should prompt action, not end it,” wrote Harry Cheney in a 1983 review for Christianity Today of a Billy Graham production called The Prodigal. how an encounter with christ should prompt action is, of course, the creative challenge; hence the risk, if the filmmaker does not have a satisfactory answer.
risen does not have a satisfactory answer. i don’t think it’s a huge spoiler if i say that clavius’s encounter with the risen christ is literal and in the flesh and that this encounter is the end of the life he has known. less clear is what kind of life is beginning.
In the second half, the film’s unnerving technique gives way to a kind of midrash on the familiar gospel resurrection stories, seen through the eyes of a fictional Tagalong. The effect ranges from diversionary (as when Clavius expertly guides the apostles past a Roman search party on the road from Jerusalem to Galilee) to distracting revisionism (as when Clavius teams up with Peter, James, and John). in the boat at the fishing trip in juan 21!).
clavius functions here as a kind of audience surrogate, an outsider whose presence invites viewers to imagine themselves in these familiar scenes. the problem is that clavius is a neophyte in distress, and risen, despite its more intriguing first half, is ultimately aimed at believing audiences, not skeptics or outsiders, making clavius a surrogate unconvincing audience.
part of the problem is that clavius is essentially a cipher: a figure with no history, no notable relationships, no personal context of any kind. we know that he is a man of blood and steel and that he awaits “a day without death” (that is, the death of other people). What does an encounter with Christ mean for such a man? How does it change his approach to life?
These are not just important spiritual questions; are important dramatic questions. the story of a conversion is a kind of character development, and character development requires details. forgive some evil of the past, overcome prejudice, change pride for humility, surrender one’s will to the divine will, something.
clavius is not developed enough as a character for such details. there’s an interesting moment early in the film where clavius offers a wrong pagan prayer to the covenant deity of the hebrews; But neither this, nor some last-minute angst in the dialogue with Jesus about seeking “certainty” and fearing “being wrong and gambling eternity on it,” offers much insight into his character. (“gambling eternity” on one’s beliefs is a shockingly anachronistic idea; the Romans did not speak or think that way about their religion, and even if one accepts this Pascalian language in a first-century Judeo-Christian context, the attempt to clavius prayer for yahweh shows that he is too pagan to think so christianly.)
The other part of the problem, unfortunately, is that the disciples and even the risen Yeshua himself are not better developed and convey little sense of a Christian ethos. yeshua (cliff curtis) is friendly and enigmatic, but doesn’t say anything very surprising, either to us or to clavius. “There are no enemies here,” Yeshua tells Clavius when the latter bursts into the upper room and recognizes the man he saw dead on the cross. later, when clavius confesses that he doesn’t know what to ask, yeshua prompts, “speak your heart”. shouldn’t the risen lord sound deeper than yoda or aragorn?
risen has some strong moments. I like the brief exchange in the opening scene with the captured zealot leader, who Clavius taunts, “tell yahweh you come courtesy of mars.” When the fanatical leader replies that he must pain Clavius that the one true god chooses the Hebrews and not the Romans, Clavius slyly replies, “Not today.”
best of all is a scene in a tavern in which clavius, following all the clues about the disappearance of the body of the executed king of the jews, finally gets the true story from one of the poor guards who was there at that time moment. . the effect of witnessing the immediate aftermath of the resurrection of jesus is amazing, and the character’s best moment in the film, along with the interrogation of mary magdalene (maria botto).
but these good times are offset by bad decisions. The fanatical leader is identified as Barabbas, who barely seems to have had time to get from Pilate’s court where he was released that morning to the battle where Clavius kills him; it is also jarring to think of the first man symbolically liberated by the death of jesus dying before jesus himself. Anyway, shouldn’t Clavius have taken Barabbas to Jerusalem to crucify him?
Puzzlingly, risen actually manages to combine the drawbacks of the medieval imagination with the drawbacks of a desecrated Protestant imagination.
Thus, on the one hand, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a prostitute, a sixth-century tradition from which she has been absolved both by biblical scholarship and, to a large extent, by the contemporary popular imagination. risen shows no awareness of the contemporary discussion surrounding the portrayal of Jews in evangelical drama; there are no sympathetic jewish characters who are not disciples of jesus. Nor is much attention paid to the female disciples, who were the first to discover the empty tomb and to meet the risen Christ.
on the other hand, in the very effectively imagined ascension scene, jesus gives the apostles the great commission, but leaves out baptism in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit. In a scene that would otherwise have notable Eucharistic overtones, when the Apostles break and share bread around a campfire while praying the Our Father, Peter nonchalantly tosses a piece of bread over his shoulder to the ground for Clavius. (no, not really the eucharist, but still).
The Virgin Mary is just a character. And when Peter affirms his love for Jesus three times and receives the triple commission from him, but with no hint of Peter’s guilt for the triple denials, this moment she loses her redeeming power.
for all its problems, risen is still more interesting in some ways than a direct dramatization of the gospel story as a son of god. it’s far from completely satisfying, but for devoted viewers, its strengths may outweigh its flaws.
steven d. greydanus is the film critic of record and creator of decent movies. he is studying for the permanent diaconate of the archdiocese of newark, new jersey. follow him on twitter.
watcher warning: battlefield and crucifixion violence; fleeting images of decomposing corpses; brief representations of drunkenness; references to prostitution. teens and up.