“Risen” Starring Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, and Cliff Curtis. Released Feb. 2016 by Columbia Pictures.
So this is the first movie review that you’ve seen here on the blog. There’s a reason for that. Normally I avoid “faith-based” entertainment like the plague. You can count the number of “faith inspired” or “faith based” movies that I have ever liked on one hand. One is “Jesus of Nazareth,” which I grew up watching at least every Christmas and Easter. Another is “The Mission” starring Jeremy Irons, though calling that a “faith based” movie might be a bit of a stretch.
Anyway, there’s a couple of reasons why I don’t generally go for these kind of movies or TV series. One reason is that I feel like there’s been a modern “branding” of Christianity in the United States. There’s always been Christian books, movies, and music, but now so much of it seems like an industry made to just part Christians from their money while certain “celebrities” promote their brand. I mean, even the Duck Dynasty dudes have their own line of books, produce movies, and even have their own Bible. Second, so much of this kind of thing seems designed to be kind of “in your face” to non-Christians. Think of the “Left Behind” series or the “God’s Not Dead” movies. On the face, they seem like they’re just designed to affirm the faith of Christians, but when you dive in, there’s always kind of a snide vibe attached to help the Christian feel superior to others. This antagonistic vibe, like it or not, does not help bring people to Christ nor does it make people view Christians as anything but smug, judgmental, blowhards.
So why in the world am I writing a review about a faith based movie? Well, I’m writing it not only because I really enjoyed it (enough to pick it up on Blu-Ray), but also because I feel like it kind of represents a departure from the two things that make me dislike Christian movies. I’ll get to that in a second.
If you haven’t seen “Risen” yet, then here’s what it’s about (Spoilers Ahead). The movie begins with a battle scene on Good Friday that kind of puts an interesting bookend on the Barabbas story. After the battle the main character, Calvius, a roman tribune played by Joseph Fiennes, returns to Jerusalem where Pilate instructs him to go to the crucifixion site and make sure that the men who have been executed there, including a Nazarene aesthetic named Ye’shua, are dead. Clavius goes to Golgotha and orders the men to break the legs of the crucified, but when they get to Ye’shua, it appears that he is already dead, and to spare his mother the sight of having his legs broken, Clavius orders him to be run through with a spear instead.
Shortly thereafter, Joseph of Arimathea arrives with a letter from Pilate asking that the body of Ye’shua be released to him. Clavius grants this and leaves the scene. The next day the high priest asks Pilate to put a Roman seal on the tomb and place a guard because he is afraid that disciples of the Nazarene will steal his body and proclaim him risen from the dead. Clavius goes to the tomb with his eager new aid, played by Tom Felton from the Harry Potter series, and applies the seal himself after the priests verify that the body is still there.
Of course the next morning Pilate founds out that the body of the Nazarene is in fact gone, and he orders Clavius to find out what happened, find the disciples, and find the body of the Nazarene in order to quash the story. What follows is kind of a manhunt/detective story as Clavius tries to piece together exactly what has happened. Eventually Clavius happens upon the disciples gathered around the risen Ye’shua and this profoundly changes him as he witnesses Ye’shua showing his wounds to Thomas. After he disappears, Clavius follows the disciples to Galilee, trying to evade the Roman soldiers as they go, where he witnesses the events of John 21, and even has a pretty intense discussion with Ye’shua (played by Cliff Curtis). Finally, Clavius with the disciples sees Ye’shua ascend into heaven. From that point on, Clavius most go and decide if he truly believes.
So first off, this is a really good movie. So many faith based films end up with B or C list actors and they end up being pretty shoddy. That’s not the case here. Joseph Fiennes is excellent, as is Tom Felton, who seems to be destined to be type cast as the witless bad guy. The scenery is wonderful and realistic to the period. It was shot in Malta and Spain, which do a good job doubling as Jerusalem and environs in a movie with a good budget. Finally, these kind of movies and things tend to be loaded with cheesy, cringe-inducing, cheap special effects that kind of ruin the story that they are seeking to tell. “A.D.: The Bible Continues” was plagued by this. However, “Risen” has a really low cheese factor, and even the Ascension is very tastefully done. Plus, it takes very few liberties with the scripture, which is nice. So with all that in mind, I felt like this was a movie truly made to tell an inspiring story, not just to bilk Christians.
The other thing I really liked about “Risen” was that it isn’t one of those “in your face, we RULE!” Christian movies. Yes, it is made to affirm faith, obviously, but it is not made to antagonize anyone. There are really no “Christians rule, you drool” or “rah rah” events to be found. The portrayal of Jesus and the disciples is very humble, loving, and friendly, and the message given throughout the film is one of rejecting violence, accepting others as brothers, and accepting grace. It’s very refreshing. This is helped by the fact that the story is told by a non-believer, who is kind of an outsider looking into all these events. This really is a movie that you can watch with your friends (should they desire) and not have them feel like you’re an ignorant, arrogant, tool afterwards.
“Risen” is a beautiful story and a beautiful movie that is in much the same vain as other classics about Jesus and these events like “The Robe” (which it is very similar to), “Jesus of Nazareth,””King of Kings,” or “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Even though it’s scope may not be as epic as those movies, I do think that “Risen” can become a new Christian classic. If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out.