Does "RISEN" Rise to Greatness? A Review

My wife and I were able to have an all-too-rare “date night” last night, and as part of that night out, we chose to see “RISEN”, the latest “Christian” film release from Sony Pictures/Columbia/Affirm Films.

Before I begin, I want to admit that I tend to watch films that are labeled as “Christian” with a very narrow lens.  There have been way too many films labeled as such, that are more worldly and even heretical than anything remotely biblical.

On to the review!

Risen, directed by Kevin Reynolds and screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and Paul Aiello (who also wrote the story), stars Joseph Fiennes as “Clavius” (mostly identified as “Tribute” in the film), a Roman Centurion with a special position in Pontius Pilate’s service. 

The film centers around Clavius and his primary task of trying to solve the disappearance of the body of Jesus. Many of the early comments on this film labeled it as a First-Century “CSI”.  While this is somewhat of a stretch, the concept does ring somewhat true.

Plot (Warning, some spoilers):

The film opens with Clavius walking in the desert and stumbling into a small home. There he is given food and water, and begins to tell the homeowner his story – beginning with a battle battle to put down a Jewish uprising. After the bloody, but successful mission, he returns to Jerusalem. But before he can even get cleaned up, he is summoned by Pilate to deal with a situation revolving around this “King of the Jews” that had stirred up trouble. He explains to Clavius that he had no choice but to have him crucified. Pilate sends Clavius to supervise the death of the three men crucified, with a special emphasis on this “trouble” in Jesus/Yeshua. But of course, the confirmation of their death is not enough, and the Jewish leaders who are always a threat, demand that he set a seal on the tomb to prevent the theft of the body by the disciples. Thus begins the primary journey for Clavius.

After setting guard, the two begin drinking (the excuse being that they had been up two days with no rest). The next time we see them, they have fled, and the High Priest (Caiaphas) is protesting that the disciples have indeed “stolen the body”, and the two guards have fled to the temple for “sanctuary”.

So begins Clavius’ journey to “solve this crime”. Of course, he doesn’t find the rotting corpse of this Hebrew – despite turning over every fresh grave in the area and arresting and questioning many, including some close to Jesus. But Clavius does find Jesus –

Clavius is an adherent of Mars, and thus several times we hear him pay homage to Mars, and to leave alms for him at an idol. Yet the film is about a journey – from concrete doubt, to curious investigator, to eye-witness of Jesus.

The Good: The film is encouraging from a Christian point of view. I has no nudity or profanity. The film mixes in biblical quotes that help the story along and remind the viewer (if they have any knowledge at all of the Gospels and first chapter of Acts) of the biblical basis.

The Bad: The film does have significant violence, though there is not a whole lot of direct gore in sight. There are also the typical liberties taken with characters and story plot. There is also the matter of an unidentified Roman Centurion being included in the group of disciples who witness Jesus’ ascension.

Also – the disciple Bartholomew is asked why he followed Jesus. Later, when Jesus heals a leaper, he turns to Clavius and says “THIS is why”.  Is this trying to say that he followed Jesus ONLY because of miracles?

The film portray some interesting depictions  of Gospel passages (particularly from John 21) as well as basically a reenactment of Acts 1. The  disciples are acted out in a way that was kind of uncomfortable for me at first take – yet it all made sense after having some time to process what I had seen. They were being portrayed quite honestly – as I can imagine the roller coaster of emotions they had experienced, to be met by their Savior alive – It really puts a point to the biblical account of them being accused of being drunk! Also – a hint of what was to come came in the scene as Clavius returned to Jerusalem – an earthquake!

My wife, Diana, commented that she really liked the portrayal of Jesus (played by Cliff Curtis), as he not only looked more culturally realistic, but the actor showed such a “peace” in his look/gaze. I tend to agree with that summary! She also did not care for the Clavius character, as she felt he was depicted as too stoic. With that, I did not so much concur.

So – if you are still reading this, you are probably now wanting me to cut to the chase – is the film good or bad? Is it worthy to go see? Should Christians rush out and support the movie?  I might disappoint you here. I will summarize this with this: Risen, while an admitted fictional story revolving around a historical and biblical true story (the resurrection of Jesus). I rather enjoyed the gospel account scenes sprinkled in, from the disciples returning to Galilee and their fishing boats (and the fishless night), as well as the questioning by Jesus of Peter (“do you love me?”). I also got goose bumps when the Jesus character, while walking towards the horizon, tells them that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria…” (Acts 1:8)

I will admit, I overall liked this film. I was actually imporessed that it was more “biblical” as an admitted fictional story, than many movies billed as Bible-based “true” stories. The liberties taken are far less Bible-bending than most. I believe this would be a safe movie to take a Sunday School or youth group to, and I would highly advise using it as a launch pad to digging in to the Scripture passages that are portrayed – and discern if they were actually portrayed in a reasonable and biblically-correct way.

Also of interest, contrary to many films in this genera, there is no “ask Jesus into your heart” emotion-rending scene. I give this film bonus points for this!

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