I have not always thought well of Christian films. While I appreciate the efforts that Christian directors and screenwriters are making, most Christian films have been ineffective as films, and therefore, ineffective as Christian films.
But Risen, while far from perfect, puts Christian film on a new level.
Starring Joseph Fiennes, Risen is the story of a Roman Tribune serving Pontius Pilate, who is charged with finding the body of Jesus following his resurrection, under the presumption that his disciples have stolen the body. Aided by Lucius (Tom Felton) with the strength of Rome on his side, the ambitions Roman sets to work with force, violence, intimidation, and bribery.
This Tribune, Clavius, is not a man inclined to belief in a Hebrew deity, much less a Hebrew deity of love and forgiveness. He worships the god Mars (Ares in Greek mythology), the god of war. He shouts a soldier to shut up the mother of Jesus as he’s being crucified. He thoroughly describes the process of crucifixion to intimidate a follower of Jesus. He desecrates Hebrew bodies because of a hunch. Most importantly, for the purposes of this film, he helps crucify Jesus – a man he knew, from speaking with Pilate, was probably not guilty.
Even when Clavius does acknowledge Yahweh, he does it with gross misunderstanding, pledging that if Yahweh give up the body of Yeshua (Jesus), he will erect temples in Yahweh’s honor. But this is to the film’s credit. As the plot moves, it doesn’t do so aimlessly – the point is not just to bring them closer to finding Yeshua, but to help us further understand Clavius. And in all of his violence, bloodshed, and callousness, we find in Clavius someone who is not a good man. He does not serve the Savior. In that way, this film is less sanitized that many Christian social dramas are, and finds us identifying with the protagonist more – he’s a bad person, characterized by a sinful life of rebellion towards God. That speaks to us.
The film does all of this investigation lead-up quite well. The film is restrained and grounded, as if showing us everything through a naturalistic viewpoint at first. A good example of this is Jesus’s crucifixion – which is a relatively short scene, and passes like just another event in Clavius’s blood-filled day. Because to him, at that time, that’s all it was. It’s not until the evidence has mounted that we see the supernatural portrayed in more straightforward ways.
But when we do reach that point, the film looses its footing somewhat. Away from the grounded atmosphere of a Roman in Jerusalem, the film becomes too indulgent, slipping into a retelling of the events at the end of the gospels, rather than a character-centric story about the conversion of Clavius. Attempts by the writers to meld conflict with Clavius’s decision and the true events of Jesus’s life do not meld well, and come out looking like shoddy patchwork. The one truly worthwhile moment in all of this – Clavius’s conversation with Yeshua, becomes overshadowed by a rushed attempt to turn a fictionalized account surrounding Bible events to a straight adaptation of the Bible itself. Either of those can work great in and of themselves, but doing both at the same time does not suit well, and winds up tonally inconsistent.
That conversation is done quite well, however, and one moment sticks out to me. Yeshua asks Clavius what he is afraid of. Clavius responds, “I’m afraid of being wrong. And betting eternity on it.” While I think the film would have been more effective if it had taken an evidences approach that didn’t include so much screen time with Yeshua, this is a powerful moment. It hearkens back to the investigative first and second acts, which are by far the most effective parts of the film. It highlights that, in addition to the logical, there is an emotional side to conversion. This film shows both.
While there are things that would have made it a more effective story, this is a very promising film that gives me high hopes for the future of Christian film. Perhaps its greatest strength is that it teaches apologetics without lecturing (I’m talking to you, God’s Not Dead), highlighting the first-hand accounts of the apostles, inconsistencies between the tomb evidence and the stolen body theory, and even including the Shroud of Turin at one point. It’s an effective and engaging film, as well as a conversation starter, that engages the emotions through story, as a film should.