Risen has been billed as the unofficial sequel to The Passion of the Christ. It was even described by one over-excited viewer as ‘Gladiator meets CSI’. On an artistic level, this film doesn’t quite live up to the hype that surrounded the trailer. But when viewed in terms of a Hollywood production that stays faithful to the Bible’s account of what happened after the resurrection of Jesus, there’s much to be commended in Risen.
The central character is Clavius, a fictional Roman Centurion who witnesses the crucifixion and burial of the historical Jesus. When rumours circulate that the Jewish messiah has risen from the dead, Pontius Pilate assumes the disciples have stolen the body and so tasks Clavius with locating the corpse. With Roman Emperor Tiberius due to soon arrive in Jerusalem, Pilate is desperate to put an end to the claims of Christ's resurrection from a new ‘cult’.
In one early scene we see Pilate and Clavius sitting in a Roman bath together mocking monotheism. The willingness of the filmmakers to tell the story of the resurrection not through the eyes of the disciples, but through the eyes of a non-believer (in Clavius) gives the film a hefty dollop of credibility. It’s also a fresh way of examining an already well known story.
The brief portrayal of the crucifixion at the beginning of the film is as historically accurate and gruesome as you would expect from a 12A rated film. The decision to use Hebrew terms ‘Yahweh’ and ‘Yeshua’ in place of ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ is also admirable (although the rest of the speech is in English). Eagle eyed viewers will note a few minor inaccuracies (Jesus appears to ascend to heaven from Galilee rather than the Mount of Olives) but in the main, this is a story that is very faithful to the biblical account.
The initial encounter of a non-believing Roman centurion being confronted with a living, breathing Jesus Christ right before his eyes is well done. (Spoiler: In Risen Jesus does in fact rise from the dead!) Although the centurion doesn’t spend much screen-time voicing his questions, the viewer can easily imagine them: Is this the real Jesus? How is it possible that he’s risen from the dead? Is this just a ghost?
Ending the film on such a cliff-hanger with these questions reverberating in the viewer’s mind would have been effective. The film could have then become both a superb conversation starter, and an excellent piece of art. Instead, in its second half, Risen ups the ante and insists on driving home the point that Jesus really did rise from the dead. Christian audiences may love this, but for a non-Christian audience, the second half of the film is in danger of overreaching and appearing much too preachy. In short, the film begins to leak artistic credibility as it focuses on preaching a message, rather than telling a story.
On the positive side, moments of humour and solid if not stunning performances from Joseph Fiennes (Clavius), Peter Firth (Pontius) and Cliff Curtis (Yeshua) make this a very watchable and mostly entertaining production. It’s certainly far more enjoyable to watch than the majority of Christian films. Secular critics won’t love this film, but neither should they give it the 1-star-this-is-a-colossal-waste-of-time review that God’s Not Dead received.
We live in a time where, if recent surveys are to be believed, 40% of Brits think Jesus was a mythical figure. This film could prove to be an excellent tool which confronts that misconception. It represents the historical Jesus in an accessible and mostly non-cringey way. For that reason alone, Risen is well worth watching this Easter.
But another important consideration is this: Hollywood doesn’t often make films that are biblically accurate. The last time there was a biblically-faithful movie released to a mass market was arguably The Passion Of The Christ – and that was back in 2004.
In today's climate, it seems filmmakers are forced to choose between either making a biblically faithful movie that doesn’t get a wide release (Son of God) or a movie that takes great liberties with the story of scripture and does a lot better at the box office (Noah). Risen will be most in danger from falling into the former category. But Damaris, who have provided resources for the churches based on Risen, have promised the film will receive a general nationwide release. If this happens (and it would mean every major cinema chain showing the film when it releases one week before Good Friday) and if key Christian leaders endorse the film, then Risen might just buck the trend and be deemed both biblically faithful and watchable.