Risen is a drama set in Biblical times centering around the mystery of Jesus’ Resurrection. It is the story of Clavius, a fictional Roman tribune brilliantly portrayed by Joseph Fiennes, who is tasked by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) first with overseeing Jesus’ Crucifixion, then sealing Jesus’ tomb, and finally hunting for Jesus’ body after the Resurrection to prevent the Jewish disciples proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. The outer story of Clavius’s search for Christ provides the framework for his inner journey of growing fascination with who Jesus truly is. Risen is a solid, though not flawless, effort at a film about one of the greatest mysteries of our Christian faith.
Risen attempts an epic tone, but the story is too narrowly focused to achieve a truly epic scale, in its relatively brief timeline, lack of complexity, and limited cast of characters. Outwardly, the story is primarily about the hunt for Jesus’ body. But Clavius’s inner journey of how he comes to see Jesus gradually takes main stage as the confusion, rumors, and lies surrounding the Resurrection convince Clavius that the disappearance of Jesus’ body is a mystery he must get to the bottom of.
Risen naturally requires many fictional scenes because the protagonist is fictional and the main plot device of the film—the search for Jesus’ body—is fictional, although somewhat plausible. Biblical events are portrayed with respect and in fidelity to the Bible overall, although taking liberty with certain details.
The acting throughout the film is well-done and makes it stand as one of the better-made Christian films over the past few years. In fact, the film works overall because of the great acting, in particular the intensity of Joseph Fiennes, who carries most of the scenes with his utterly credible, obsessive search for the truth. The film’s portrayals of the biblical characters are well-done, succeeding in their attempts to portray their characters’ Jewishness. Apart from Clavius, Peter is my favorite character in the film, and the portrayal of Stewart Scudamore well represents the blustery, loyal apostle who leaps vividly from the pages of the Gospel.
Going to see this film, well-made on many levels, can definitely support Risen’s filmmakers and encourage others to produce films of faith. Catholics and Christians should definitely consider seeing Risen.
From here on, my commentary contains a few spoilers. (Scroll down to continue.)
However, the script of Risen is somewhat lacking in subtext and depth. When Jesus finally does appear in the film, his words are frequently not taken from his resurrection appearances nor even from the Scriptures. The disciples of Jesus are mostly limited to the Apostles and Mary Magdalen (we only get a glimpse of the Mother of Jesus at the Crucifixion), and for the most part seem blandly uniform—even naïve—in their joyful faith. Important elements or moments of growth in faith for Clavius were lacking or invisible. Clavius’s journey towards faith is convincing mostly because of Joseph Fiennes’s superb performance. For example, early in the film Clavius shows that he has faith in the Roman gods. The film never addresses how his eventual faith in Jesus is different, since it seems to mostly revolve around seeing Jesus alive—a man whom he helped put to death and seal in a tomb. Clavius’s faith is based on his senses—a point which Jesus makes to him in the film.
The fact that Clavius’s acceptance of faith feels inevitable throughout the film seems to direct Risen as a film more meant for Christian believers than for nonbelievers. However, the ambiguity surrounding where Clavius’s faith will lead him—what consequence it will have on his life—is one of the best moments of the film.
Windows to the Soul
Risen is definitely a film with potential to help viewers raise questions or deepen their faith. While the faith of characters like Peter and Mary Magdalen is assumed, Clavius’ journey towards faith does not feel automated, but a genuine search. Reflecting on Clavius’s nascent faith—his witnessing the risen Jesus—can help us to ask questions about the source of our faith, and how our faith can grow, especially in times of darkness and doubt. What consequence does our faith have in our lives? What does our relationship with Christ mean to us, and how do we witness to Christ with our lives?
Various encounters of the disciples with Jesus after his Resurrection can open the door to beautiful insights and prayer on the related Scripture passages. Personally, I found the portrayal of Peter’s faith, humility, and openness especially inviting in this way.
In many of the scenes with Christ, the apostles physically touch Jesus. This emphasizes the reality of Jesus’ bodily Resurrection, but can also be a doorway into reflecting on the great mystery of the Incarnation.
Risen may not be the masterpiece it tries to be, but it is certainly a solid film on many levels, a movie whose artistry can touch our minds and hearts, and open doors to deepening faith.