The crucifixion and resurrection were spectacular. 10/10. I especially love the twist at the end where Jesus rises from the dead. God directs the best nonfiction masterpieces.
Wait, this is supposed to be a review of the 2016 movie “Risen”—starring Joseph Fiennes and directed by Kevin Reynolds (The Count of Monte Cristo, 2002), which made about twice its budget in theaters and exceeded box office projections by about 50% in its opening weekend, finishing third that week. My bad.
So hey, was the movie itself any good? As both an author and an informal biblical scholar, I might have a unique perspective on it. So I’ll break it down for you.
The writers of “Risen” wanted to make a movie about the resurrection. They reasoned that there were all these movies about the Passion of the Christ, but no movies about his resurrection. Why leave Jesus in the tomb? So they set out to make “Risen”—the first and only movie of its kind.
The subtitle is “Witness the greatest manhunt in history.” And it is that. Jesus’s body was never found—because he rose from the dead. (Any alternative attempts to explain his empty tomb have fallen flat on their face.) Now we see a story written from the perspective of a soldier named Clavius (Fiennes) assigned to find Jesus’s body and quell any potential uprising. Clavius will succeed, of course. He will find Jesus…but not in the way he expected.
It’s a systematic plot—well organized. It begins with a flashback to establish Clavius (smart—I do that in my stories), goes into his assignment to lead the manhunt for Jesus’s body, and midway through Jesus is discovered—alive. The way “Risen” opens, developing the main character and his skepticism before leading into a confrontation with Jesus, is perfect. Clavius spends the rest of the movie struggling with what he has seen—and gradually realizing he can never go back to his old life as a soldier. I could see a natural progression, and none of the scenes were out of place. The flow of suspense was just right.
What’s curious is the finale, though. There really isn’t one. There is no rising action, no climax, nothing of that sort. The entire movie is simply intense. And since it’s kind of a post-finale of the resurrection, the most intense moments of the movie come when Clavius finds Jesus, when Clavius himself is being hunted, and when Jesus ascends. It follows an alternative plot format—a series of miniature finales coupled with rising and falling action.
This is a legitimate format for plotwriting, but it is rarely used in today’s day and age. Yet the director employs it skillfully, and the viewer’s interest is never lost. The end still feels a bit weird, though—it’s almost as if a finale is yet to come.
Most audiences are trained to understand movies in terms of where they are going and how they will end. This movie is the opposite. It wants the audience to think about where it’s going long after the reels have stopped rolling.
I’m very satisfied with where they took the characters. They portrayed Jesus and the apostles accurately—finally! The disciples joke around, seem like real people instead of origami puppets, and act like first-century fishermen. Peter stays true to his character as described in the New Testament. Meanwhile, Jesus actually looks like a rustic Palestinian. The idea known as “Hot Jesus”—a long-haired Aryan supermodel—is disposed of like the hot garbage it is.
What is “Hot Jesus”? Well, the prophet Isaiah noted that there would be nothing in the Messiah’s appearance that would draw us to him (Isaiah 53:2). And long hair was discouraged among first century Jews—unless you were a Nazirite, which Jesus was not.
Short-haired, unattractive. That sound like any portrayal of Jesus you’ve seen? Exactly. “Hot Jesus” is an endemic embellishment. And “Risen” tosses it out.
“Risen” is the only major production I’ve ever seen or heard of in which they strove for biblical accuracy over aesthetic appeal. And ironically, its aesthetics are far superior to other productions on the subject. They took great care in their characters, and these seem like real people. I shouldn’t have to say these things about a Christian production, but sadly they aren’t a given. In “Risen” they are.
But how about Clavius? Is he well-developed?
More or less. His curiosity and thirst for inner peace is the driving force behind this story—he is the narrator through whom we see the manhunt. For that reason, he is intentionally more conflicted and introverted. Fiennes brings this out well, and his sidekick Lucius (Tom Felton) draws him out effectively.
But while Clavius and his sidekick are good, Pilate (Peter Firth) is amazing. Any scene with Pilate is golden. The leader has such a cynical yet pensive nature. I feel they really captured him from the Gospels. He is questioning and philosophizing while displaying a cavalier and jaded attitude. It takes work to strike this balance, and the actor and writers do it well. Kudos.
I know what you’re thinking—a manhunt? How true is this to the Biblical account? Well, obviously no Roman guard is ever mentioned in the Bible as seeing the risen Jesus. And the ascent to heaven takes place before five hundred people in the Biblical account…but not in the movie. Nonetheless, most of the events managed to stay surprisingly close to the text—and this is, after all, a reimagining of a historical event. It is based on a true story.
Not every detail has to be picture-perfect as long as the idea is conveyed. The movie is straightforward about this, and its very premise should make this obvious. So no complaints there.
It’s just the irony of it all that gets me. How is it that Jesus is portrayed more accurately in a movie based upon his account than he is in movies that strive to quote the book of Matthew word-for-word? Is it really that hard to make a good movie about Jesus?
Well, guess what. We finally have one. It’s called “Risen,” and it’s a fantastic addition to your collection. The plot, the characters, the suspense, the aesthetics—they all work together for a unique treat.
I heartily recommend “Risen” for everyone.