…or so I had hoped. The reality was a bit underwhelming. But first…
RISEN MOVIE PARENTAL POINTS:
- Sex scenes: 0 instances
- Veiled sexual references: 1 instance (detailed in my Review below)
- Foul language: 0 instances
- Violence and gore: 1 graphic battle scene, several scenes with dead decomposing bodies, 1 scene with dying and dead crucified men
DETAILED RISEN MOVIE REVIEW:
A friend and I went to see the new Risen movie. We both enjoyed it overall. Spoilers ahead, beware!
The film starts on Good Friday with a strong Action Movie vibe. The intro scene is a bloody battle between Jewish rebels led by Barabbas and a Roman platoon putting down their rebellion. (Yes, I’m pretty sure it’s intended to be that Barabbas, an interesting and ironic move on the writers’ part since he dies at the end of the fighting.) The platoon is led by Tribune Clavius, who turns out to be our hero. Clavius is Pontius Pilate’s right hand man who helps him keep Jerusalem under control. We next see him directing the Roman soldiers who crucify Jesus and the thieves. Clavius even stops one of the soldiers from breaking Jesus’ legs, helping fulfill the Jewish messianic prophecy, “Not one bone shall be broken” (Psalm 34:20). Clavius does this out of pity for Jesus’ weeping mother. This is a nice touch and endears him to the audience. Soon after, the Sanhedrin coerce the Romans to place Jesus’ body under Roman guard. Once Jesus’ body is discovered to be missing, the movie takes on a more mystery-like CSI feel. Of course Clavius is on the case to figure out “who dun it,” and find the missing body.
The Tale’s Turning Point
After a series of interviews, including one with Mary Magdalene, Clavius at last interrogates a disciple: Bartholomew. Frankly, I thought the disciple came off as over-the-top ridiculous. The actor has the mannerisms of a Teen youth minister. He has a flamboyant, fake, Joel Osteen-like persona that doesn’t seem to match the more serious picture of the apostles painted in the Gospels. Up until this point, the movie felt realistic. It was quite similar to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (I’ll just call it Passion from here for brevity’s sake). But once Clavius meets Bartholomew, the film seems to be much less story-oriented and history-oriented, but feels more message-oriented and almost preachy, a la Fireproof or Courageous in a way that Passion never did. I don’t think it’s just bad acting. Granted, the Bartholomew character was poorly acted. In general when you tell a story, it needs four things.
The Four Features of a Great Story
In order of importance: One, compelling characters. Enough said. Two, intelligent dialogue between them. If you don’t understand what I mean, watch The Princess Bride. Three, a consistent and striking world they live in. The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Horatio Hornblower series win in this area. In film, we can also expand this to cinematography. And finally, Four, relevant ideas that dictate the characters’ actions. Ask the big questions. What is justice? Does one’s final loyalty lie with one’s family or with one’s nation? What if this technology were implemented? Think Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, for example, or his Inception film.
Application to the Movie
This particular film goes awry when it causes the disciples to act and talk in ways that are inauthentic to their characters as First-Century Jews (compromising the first three of the four principles of good story-writing). Their hopes of Jesus’ wresting power from the Romans and reestablishing a truly Davidic kingdom were dashed. At this point in their ministry, the disciples were not joyfully proclaiming the good news as Bartholomew does to Clavius in the film. They were still very confused about Jesus’ messianic identity, frightened by his death and unwilling to believe he had risen (Mark 16:14). They did not know whether Christianity would be a solely Jewish movement, or one for gentiles as well, a question which is labored over and answered through the Book of Acts. Jesus’ disciples and even Jesus himself all seem too modernized and not First-Century Jewish enough for the movie to be believable. Although there is nothing overtly sacrilegious, the characters seem to lack the authenticity and realism of those in Passion, and I detect a mild whiff of the stench of Churchianity in the way these proto-Pastors conduct themselves, congratulating each other on good-sounding Christian lines and phraseology in one late scene: “Oh that’s a good one, I’ll have to use that when I’m preaching.” No, I’m not joking. That was in a scene. Now, perhaps a certain sense of inauthenticity is inevitable in any English language film of this material. If so, this illustrates the genius of Mel Gibson’s move to use subtitles presenting the events surrounding the crucifixion entirely in the original languages. But, I still feel the writers could have worked harder to make the characters act more like ancient Jews, and specifically the disciples as recorded in the Gospel, rather than modern megachurch preachers.
Other Things I Disliked and Liked
There is one raunchy gag where Clavius and his sidekick are looking for Mary Magdalene and ask a barracks full of soldiers a question. “Who here knows Mary Magdalene?” Gradually all the soldiers’ hands go up in the barracks. It was a cheap laugh in exchange for besmirching a Saint that was a bad bargain in my opinion, but this is the only sexual reference in the film.
A few things I really appreciated: There is no profanity anywhere in the film, to its credit. One thing I will say I thoroughly enjoyed was the appearance of the Shroud of Turin, an object of traditional Catholic and Eastern veneration. The casters seem to have even perhaps modeled their Jesus off the shroud, as the actor has far more Semitic features than Jim Caviezel in Passion and than traditional Western artistic depictions of Jesus as a European. This bit of authenticity that excelled even Passion helped me imagine I was meeting the historical Jesus and adds real value to the film. I also enjoyed the depictions of Roman religion, particularly a Roman funeral scene and Clavius’ pagan veneration of Mars, which gradually fades from him as the film progresses and as he comes closer to Christ.
Morally Shaky Hero
Finally, I don’t like where Clavius is left at the end of the film. While like the hero in Gladiator, he is virtuous in many ways, yet Clavius rejects Peter’s offer to become an evangelist and co-worker with the disciples. We see him walking off into the desert in the closing scene “changed forever” as he admits to himself, but how he has changed is unclear. Perhaps he is supposed to represent the perspective of the modern-day historian looking back on the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection. They too are trying to solve the same mystery and might make up their mind one way or another about Jesus’ identity. But to my taste, this lack of decision in our hero after he has literally come face to face with the risen Christ makes him a bad hero. As Christ says and two of the evangelists record, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30, Luke 11:23). Another thought: Is Clavius too manly and stoic to associate with the hip youth pastor apostles of this film? Alas, if it is so, how many modern young men flee the pews and stadium-seating of their parishes and megachurches for similar reasons.
I’ve perhaps been harsh on this film whose makers clearly had noble intentions in creating it, but that is primarily because of the greatness of other films over the same material with which this one must inevitably be compared. Overall I do recommend the movie with the reservations mentioned above. Watching the film causes you to consider the death and resurrection of our Lord, and any movie today that does that while attempting to be respectful and do the historical events justice is okay in my book and worth supporting with viewership.
Liked this review? It was reposted here after some re-editing from my theology blog, Defense for the Hope. Stop by some time.