The film Risen retells the story of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension through the fictional Roman tribune Clavius, who oversees both the crucifixion of Jesus and the investigation of what happened to his missing body. Clavius’s encounter with the crucified Jesus, his interviews with enthusiastic disciples and other witnesses, and finally his encounters with the risen Jesus lead him to embrace the faith.
risen has ancient precedents. The first Christians created their own fictions, bearing witness to Jesus through the perspective of Pontius Pilate. the acts of pilate and the epistles of pilate show a roman prefect deeply troubled by jesus, whom he sends to the cross. In Pilate’s Acts, Roman standards are bowed as Jesus enters the room, attesting to his holy identity. Pilate’s epistles even portray him as a Christian convert. Risen, like his ancient predecessors, he proclaims the gospel through the eyes of the Romans who killed Jesus.
risen weaves his story together through selected excerpts from the gospels, and as each of the christian gospels presents its own interpretation of jesus, so does the film. one could describe this Jesus as “romantic”; he compels faith through the force of his presence. Jesus speaks little in the film, but even one look at his dead face grips Clavius. Pontius Pilate sends Jesus to the cross but orders his legs to be broken to shorten the agony. (in the gospel of john, pilate does it to placate the jewish leaders). Clearly shaken by his encounter with Jesus, Pilate gives this command as he washes his hands. Jesus takes moments for individual mentoring. When he does it with Clavius, he comes across as the perfect pastor or therapist, asking the right questions and offering support.
the risen jesus is largely spiritual. his teachings boil down to simple love. and he is harmless. one wonders why anyone would want him dead, since he poses no direct threat to the authorities. Pilate himself comments on this: “it is as if he wanted to be sacrificed”. The idea that Jesus sought his death may be common in popular piety, but it is foreign to the Gospels.
like most jesus movies, risen jesus picks and chooses between the gospels to create his narrative. During the crucifixion, we witness Matthew’s earthquake and hear Jesus’ last triumphant words from John: “It is finished!” We don’t hear his final cry from Marcos and Mateo: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The Resurrection story includes Matthew’s cover-up plot, as well as Luke’s meeting of two disciples with the risen Jesus. As Jesus prepares to ascend, he speaks quotes from John, Acts, and Matthew.
such harmonization creates awkward moments. Risen cites the promise (from Mark 16:7) that the risen Jesus will meet his disciples in Galilee. But only the author of Luke narrates Jesus’ ascension to heaven, and Luke places Jesus’ resurrection appearances in and around Jerusalem. In Risen, Jesus’ Ascension looks a lot like a space launch, but it takes place in Galilee. Mark knows nothing of the ascension of Jesus, and Luke does not describe resurrection appearances in Galilee, but Risen combines the two. this type of selective mixing obscures the distinctive testimony of each gospel, and results in a jesus who does not resemble any of the four gospels.
risen has its silly moments. The Shroud of Turin appears twice, with the image of Jesus burned into his burial cloth. We find the common depiction of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, for which there is no biblical evidence. In one scene, Claudio asks how many of his soldiers know Maria, and one by one his soldiers raise their hands. we have chase scenes and a battle scene; risen portrays the period as if, fueled by messianic fervour, the Jews were waging pitched battles against the Romans.
There were no such battles, and we don’t know how many Jews expected a messiah or what exactly they expected. as in the gospels, the film portrays the temple authorities as hopelessly hypocritical and manipulative. Pilate even calls them to visit him on the Sabbath. almost every jesus movie conveys an anti-jewish bias, and although risen does better than most, it still conveys the impression that the jews missed the messiah due to their own cluelessness and the duplicity of their leaders, an assumption that has accompanied great evil throughout history. the centuries.
Like the Gospels, Risen tells the story of Jesus to inspire his audience through his interpretation. Unfortunately, although he draws on these gospels for his portrait of Jesus, the resurrected Jesus doesn’t look much like the one we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
image credit: “affreschi di gaetano bianchi sulla lunetta della cappella gentilizia corsini (villa le corti), san casciano val di pesea” by vignaccia76. cc by sa 3.0 via wikimedia commons.