RISEN Official Trailer - In Theaters Now! by Sony Pictures Entertainment

Vision: Risen

Risen - A Fresh Take of the Gospel Story?

Director: Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Waterworld)

Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis

103 mins, M Cert.

The makers of Risen started with the idea of having a fresh take on the Gospel story. While many film and theatre productions have focussed solely on Jesus’ life and death, with the resurrection as a barely-sketched afterthought,[1] this movie begins with the crucifixion rather than Jesus’ birth or baptism. The premise is original and intriguing.

The plot revolves around the fictional Roman tribune[2] Clavius, who is tasked by Pilate with investigating the supposed body-snatching of a dead Messiah. Clavius and Jesus’ twelve disciples then follow opposing story arcs. The successful and ambitious tribune starts with great political potential, yet ends as a nobody in the desert. The fearful disciples begin as barely-seen broken men, and end as the central figures of a new, potentially world-changing, movement.

The movie has a top cast and production team. Joseph Fiennes is able to portray Clavius well as the man of action, the alert investigator, the suspicious sceptic, and the honest seeker throughout the movie. Similarly, Kiwi Cliff Curtis, a daring choice for Yeshua (Jesus),[3] is restrained and convincing. The supporting cast includes the veteran actor Peter Firth as Pilate, and a capable Tom Felton as Fiennes’ aide. Given the controversy over the white cast for Exodus: Gods and Kings, it is unsurprising that the director Reynolds has looked for more international talent for this movie, with particular standouts being Argentinian Maria Botto as Mary Magdalene and the Greek Stewart Scudamore as Peter. The movie also has much of the superb production group from The Passion of the Christ.[4]

Risen includes a number of interesting developments of the Gospel narrative. The crucifixion, for example, avoids many of the visual clichés we have come to expect. The crosses are not on a hill. Jesus’ feet are nailed from the side and not the front of the cross. The smell, the flies, and previous bodies in the charnel pit are emphasised. Golgotha is portrayed as a factory of death, and it is difficult not to wince as, once the victims are confirmed dead, the crosses are released on hinges to come crashing down for the nails to be removed. As with much of the movie, the Gospel of John narrative tends to dominate. For example, we have the legs of the two thieves broken, and Jesus’ side pierced by the Roman pilum (spear) (John 19:31-37).

Another interesting aspect of the film is the first time that the risen Yeshua is seen by Clavius. Clever editing emphasises the shock of seeing a dead man very much alive, and the impact is immediate. The soldier Clavius drops his sword, is addressed by Jesus as ‘brother’ and is told that there are “no enemies here”, a phrase he will himself adopt with his aide later in the movie. We also see Thomas’ doubts being put aside (John 20:27-28) before Jesus literally disappears from under Mary Magdalene’s hand (cf. Luke 24:31).

Then there is the film’s portrayal of Roman politics. An early running gag is messengers being repeatedly dispatched to Clavius, each one saying, “Pilate summons you.” The summonses become the signal for the breaking of increasingly bad news and unreasonable demands. Furthermore, an early bath scene with Clavius and Pilate examines the futility of the Roman political ladder – power for Clavius ultimately means peace and “a day without death”. Ironically, as a powerless disciple of Yeshua, by the movie’s end he has achieved just that.

If there are some negatives to Risen, though, it is in the details. It erroneously portrays Mary Magdalene as a “woman of the street.”[5] It is difficult to find a starry-eyed Bartholomew credible when he is interrogated by Clavius early in the movie and seems completely assured about his new Christian faith, ready to experience even death, when only recently he would have cowered and hidden.[6] The choice to put the Shroud of Turin image on Jesus’ winding sheet in the tomb is probably unwise and distracting, giving a tacit authenticity to that highly-debated relic.

The climax of the movie is its ascension scene, generally panned by critics, but having I think some magic along with the few obvious weaknesses. As with the emphasis on the resurrection, including the ascension here is highly unusual but very valuable.[7]

Remarkably little is said in the Gospels and Acts about the ascension, given its central place in church tradition. The main story is in Acts 1:6-11, along with Luke 24:51 and the textually unreliable Mark 16:19. It is assumed, however, in many places in the New Testament that Jesus returns to heaven in glory and triumph (e.g. John 6:62; Acts 2:33–34; 3:21; Eph 4:8–10; 1 Thess 1:10; Heb 4:14; 9:24; 1 Pet 3:22; Rev. 5:6). And it is in a number of the creeds and confessions of the church, including the Apostles’ Creed, the Second Helvetic Convention, and the Heidelberg Catechism.

Some of the weaknesses of the portrayal in Risen are: the choice to have Jesus walk into a sunrise/light, rather than attempt something more subtle with a cloud effect; the decision to have flocks of birds (sparrows?) as an ill-conceived representation of the Holy Spirit; the portrayal of mysterious onlookers from a distant cliff, and the clumsy use of an echo on Jesus’ final words. The birds, in particular, are so ambiguous that they might be compared with the ‘psychopomps’ (carriers/escorts of the dead) from pagan mythology.[8]

Having said this, there are also a number of strengths. The choice to set the event in Galilee works well with the plotline, despite the obvious difficulty that the biblical references are for Bethany (Luke 24:50) or the ‘mount called Olivet’ (Acts 1:12). The combination of Matthew’s Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20) with Jesus’ final words in Acts (Acts1:7) also makes good sense. The cliff-top is an appropriate setting, combining the idea of a mountain-top with the location of the Sea of Galilee. I in particular like that the writers pick up on two key aspects of the ascension. First, Jesus disappears not by floating into the sky, implying a three-tier universe, but by walking outward into heaven as another dimension. By doing this, he retains the physical body in which he was incarnated, while at the same time implicitly going to glory, and to a place of power and authority. Secondly, with his conversation of the night before with Clavius, the writers pick up one of the key elements of the ascension: that Christ intercedes for us (Rom 8:34), accompanies us by the Spirit, and may even call us to new ministry (cf. Acts 9:3-6).

Overall, Risen brings new life into the ‘gospel movie’ genre, and certainly, I think, it has the ability to intrigue the unchurched while convincing Christians anew that Jesus is a saviour worth following, and that even the most unlikely seeker has the potential to change for the better.

Ian Waddington is a lecturer in the School of Theology Henderson and Manukau Campuses. 

[1] The Passion of the Christ for example, with which this movie shares much common ground, has a mere one and a half minutes of resurrection in its 126 minute portrayal. Famously, the stage musical Godspell was accused of omitting the resurrection altogether.

[2] The rank of military tribune is between that of legate, who might lead an army unit such as a legion (3000-5000 men), and a centurion the leader of a ‘hundred’ (often approximately 200-1000 men). Tribunes could often aspire to seats on the Senate.

[3] “A darker-skinned and probably more accurate-looking version of the Christ than we’ve typically seen on screen.” See “Film Review: ‘Risen’,”http://variety.com/2016/film/reviews/risen-review-1201709094/.

[4] Maurizio Millenotti is costume designer and Steven Mirkovich is the editor. Along with this is the talented Stefano Maria Ortolani on set construction, as well as the experienced Reynolds directing.

[5] See e.g. S. S. Smalley, “Mary,” in New Bible Dictionary, eds. D. R. W. Wood et al. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 737.

[6] Justin Chang delightfully assesses the performance of Stephen Hagan as Bartholomew as having a “laid-back surfer affect [that] briefly threatens to turn the movie into ‘Dude, Where’s My Christ?’!” See “Film Review: ‘Risen’."

[7] For a good summary of the ascension on film and the techniques used to present it, see Peter T. Chattaway, “The Ascension of Christ in film: literalism, symbolism, etc.,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/filmchat/2014/05/the-ascension-of-christ-in-film-literalism-symbolism-etc.html.

[8] As such they may be a far from holy image. Sparrow psychopomps are memorably used by Stephen King in his novel The Dark Half as executioners of the hero’s evil doppelganger – they tear him to pieces!