Friday, February 19, 2016

Movie Review: Risen (2016)

Risen is the recent movie co-written and directed by Kevin Reynolds (Waterworld, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) starring Joseph Fiennes as Clavius, a Roman tribune, second to Pontius Pilate, charged with maintaining law and order in an uncompromising fashion. 

Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) has been crucified, and Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) is anxious that there are no disturbances on his watch in the lead-up to the arrival of Emperor Tiberius in Jerusalem. But in the aftermath of the crucifixion, Yeshua’s body disappears and rumours of resurrection sweep the city. Pilate needs to shut down the rumors quickly, so he tasks the Roman Centurion Clavius Aquila Valerius Niger to find out what happened. While being tough, Clavius is also a fair man, so he weighs the evidence. It’s kind of this collision of The Passion of the Christ and Murdock Mysteries.

In some senses, Risen is an odd hybrid. It has very little of the violence of The Passion Of The Christ. It almost feels like an old-school biblical epic on a smaller scale.

After the recent Hollywood failures of Noah (2014) and the story of Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), Risen actually gets a Bible story right. Like The Passion of the Christ (2004) this film presents a historically accurate, compelling, and intriguing story.

Hollywood gets the history right: 
  • Pilate is anxious to please the emperor and maintain peace among the revolting Jews.
  • The Sanhedrin are anxious to disprove the rumors of Yeshua’s resurrection.
  • The disciples are fearful, yet confident in their knowledge of the earth-shattering event. 
There are some minor quibbles with historical accuracy:

  • Tiberius did not visit Judea.
  • The ascension scene (which I really liked) should have occurred after the return to Judea, but another trip would have added more complexity. 
  • Peter would not have felt so comfortable with a Roman – much less a tribune – before Peter gets to Acts 10, when God had to reveal to him that he could associate with a centurion and his household. 
  • Perhaps the cheesiest moment, is when Jesus’ burial cloths is shown to bear the same image as the Turin Shroud.

There are some clunky places:

  • Pilate comes across as a bit of a wimpish wheeler dealer.
  • The two soldiers guarding Yeshua’s tomb seem a little clueless.
  • Some of the disciples are a played a bit simplistic. Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan) comes across as giddy and nervous giddy, rather unconvincing. In fact, Risen presents Yeshua’s disciples as carefree, inexplicably happy and peaceful – in some places, almost reminiscent of Godspell’s(1973) hippie culture. Whereas in the Gospels, the disciples come across as a much more complicated bunch, theologically sophisticated and full of pride, confusion, and doubt.

Other characters are well done:

  • Peter (Stewart Scudamore) is well nuanced.
  • Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) comes across as wonderfully mysterious.
  • Clavius is stoic throughout, and his impassivity is very effective.

I won’t retell the story, most of you know the biblical account of the crucifixion and resurrection and the appearances through to the ascension.

Risen is surprisingly restrained. It downplays, but doesn’t ignore, the miraculous. I found the ascension scene well done and loved how they merged the Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8 passages.

As Christians we know the resurrection is no hoax. But by placing Clavius as the main character, we see a doubter, a skeptic, unravel the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This brings a fresh outsider’s perspective to the Gospel’s account of the most important event in human history. Obviously in taking this approach, Risen adds some fictional, although believable elements to give us a view of events from a Roman’s eyes. 

Clavius is driven by ambition. He seeks power so that he can make money, and money so that he can live a good life. His goal is “an end to travail, a day without death, peace.” He is “everyman,” a character with whom the audience can readily relate, and he becomes a religious seeker, willing to question his own background to come closer to the truth.

The power of this movie rests on the fact that the story is shown from the eyes of a Roman soldier instead of the eyes of Jesus' disciples. The familiar story becomes fresh. Risen is honest about his struggle. This is no quick conversion story. But it is about coming to faith in the risen Yeshua.

Risen does a wonderful job illustrating the struggle to believe and the joy of discovering faith in Christ. 

Overall Risen is intriguing. The depictions, acting and casting are well done. Risen isn’t just thematically and historically accurate, it also succeeds as a film. Impressive cinematography captures each powerful scene: from the stunning courtyard of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, to the pomp of the Roman palace, to the sprawling desert wastes and the tragedy of the crucifixion.

Although the story line surrounding the central character is fictitious, the movie otherwise stays close to the biblical script. Anyone willing to learn from something partly fictitious (i.e. anyone who reads fiction, watches movies or cartoons, or even Jesus’ parables) will enjoy it. Films like Risen help us to explore more deeply the biblical stories with which we have sometimes become too familiar. It's well worth seeing and talking about.

I saw the movie a couple of days before it was released
thanks to some tickets from Life 100.3

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