By: Rachel McMillan; Credit breakpoint.com
A movie about faith couched in a narrative of doubt. What a refreshing concept.
With excellent acting, historical details, cinematography, and overall production values, “Risen” is a significant step toward reconciling the disparity between Christianity and Hollywood: providing an accessible faith-based film that deserves to be embraced beyond its target audience. A respectable opening at the box office this weekend signals that this is exactly what’s happening.
“Risen’s” virtues were all the more prominent, as the movie followed a series of trailers for films that seemed designed expressly to put off any viewer in the theater not familiar with evangelical culture: “God’s Not Dead 2” and “Miracles From Heaven.” Both made me shift a little in my theater seat, as their advertisements seemed more blatant propaganda for the converted than accessible tales for the seeking.
“Risen,” by contrast, takes the questions and doubts of nonbelievers seriously. It sets itself apart by approaching an oft-told story from a completely new perspective. At once detective story and historical epic, it is strongest when it draws out the opposing view points of the Sanhedrin and Pilate and his men as they prepare for the arrival of Tiberius amidst uprising and turmoil.
Pilate (Peter Firth), washing his hands emphatically, tells his loyal and ambitious tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), recently returned to Judea, of the events of the Passover. Pilate has just been forced to crucify a man he believes may be innocent at the insistence of a mob.
Clavius and Lucius (Tom Felton), a young man whose father is a longtime friend of Pilate and who hopes to gain experience with his connections, are asked to make sure that everything at the execution is in order. The pressure of the emperor arriving makes it even more imperative for Pilate to control any threat of Jewish uprising. On top of all this, Pilate is certain that Caesar has spies watching to see if he really has the ability to govern a province in turmoil.
Clavius oversees the end of the crucifixion, even as one of the guards is visibly moved to tears by the horror of a slaughtered innocent. He then allows Joseph of Arimathea to take the body of Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) and crown of thorns to his family plot. The Sanhedrin, hearing rumours that his followers believe he will rise on the third day following his death, asks Pilate to send a Roman to seal the tomb, hopefully stopping any plans of Yeshua’s followers to steal the corpse and forge a miraculous resurrection.
When the tomb is found empty, its heavy boulder blasted, its ropes not cut so much as fizzled and its wax seal melted, Clavius and Lucius are charged with finding the “stolen corpse” to appease the Sanhedrin before an uprising can occur.
“Risen” is most exciting when Clavius and Lucius pursue the missing corpse: interrogating Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto), an old woman who was healed, Joseph of Arimathea (Antonio Gil), and even a zealous Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan), among others. These moments of detective fiction — searching for clues, noting the broken ropes on a tomb that Clavius himself helped to seal, and turning the landscape inside out — have even viewers familiar with the story on the edge of their seat.
As a man who believed in his pagan gods, Clavius is a character not immune to faith, but his logical and battle-rattled perspective of the world, not to mention the position he hopes to carve out in Rome, are pitted against a miraculous event. “You look for something you will never find,” Mary Magdalene tells Clavius, “You look for the wrong thing.” The audience is aware beyond this less-than-nuanced statement that Clavius is on the brink of something.
Clavius, played with exceptional gravitas by Joseph Fiennes, approaches life as a man with the weight of a thousand deaths on his shoulders. While he prays piously to Mars, in his search for Yeshua’s missing corpse he even takes a chance on the Hebrew God, hoping that someone, anyone will help him reach the end of this obsessive mystery.
When Clavius finally views the risen Yeshua, a man he has not seen since a corpse hanging on a cross, his entire world is shaken. He doggedly pursues the disciples to Galilee where they hope to be reunited with Yeshua once more, telling Pilate not to kill in his name and that he has seen two things that do not reconcile. His interactions with the disciples — especially Simon Peter (Stewart Scudamore) –are a highlight of the film as they are believably unsettled about a Roman hovering so close even as they adhere to the belief that their “only weapon is love.”
“Risen” isn’t a perfect film by any means. Some of its transitions were too quick, and some of its relationships could have been better developed. Yet I left deeply impressed. For the first time in ages, a film is genuinely trying to bridge the gap between believers and nonbelievers, not just preach to the choir. This is the cross as seen from a nonbeliever’s viewpoint — a viewpoint we haven’t considered nearly enough. We owe “Risen” a debt of gratitude for bringing it before us so effectively.
A final note: Just because this is a biblical story doesn’t mean it should be watched by children. I cannot caution parents strongly enough. There is brutal and graphic violence beyond the crucifixion, and a few gruesome scenes as Clavius and his men attempt to find a purportedly stolen corpse. Even though the film is rated PG-13, please use your discretion.