“Risen”: A Cinematic (and Theological) Triumph


Explicitly Christian movies, or what are nowadays in our increasingly desacralized culture euphemistically termed “faith-based” movies, have come a long way since the rapture-fever flicks from the 70s like “A Thief in the Night” and “A Distant Thunder.” (Earlier classics like The Ten Commandments and David and Bathsheba were not produced by Christians for Christian reasons). The more recent movies based on the “Left Behind” series are an improvement on the 70s iteration. After ceding movie-making to a distinctly non- and increasingly anti-Christian Hollywood since almost the beginning of modern commercial film, Christian filmmakers have been playing catch-up. The breakthrough movie was Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ, a stark, realistic, mesmerizing — and lucrative — contribution.


Thematically, Risen picks up where The Passion left off, and it preserves the quality and power, though in a more understated and minimalistic way. The plot centers on the ambitious skeptic Clavius (played cogently by Joseph Fiennes), Pilate’s tribune (military commandant) charged with finding the body of a royalty-claiming, crucified Jewish rabbi in Judea in A. D. 33 during times of revolutionary fervor in the face of an impending visit by the Roman emperor, who on his arrival expected nothing less than perfect political order as only ancient Rome could expect. The plot exhibits a gradual transformation in Clavius as, in his frenetically paced investigations, he comes to grips with an increasingly unsettling realization: a Jew that he saw die a violent death is now fully alive.


The acting, cinematography, editing, pacing, and score are compelling, and with rare and minor exception, Risen follows the biblical text to a remarkable degree. In fact, this adherence to the Bible is more resolute than almost every Christian movie I’ve ever seen, though in a deeper way that we often don’t consider.


This movie doesn’t merely reflect the biblical Gospel accounts and the book of Acts with remarkable accuracy. The screenwriter and director have, in addition, evidently thought through with greatest care what the thoughts and emotions and intuitions of Jesus’ disciples as well as his opponents must have been like. Here is a striking, if sometimes disconcerting, example. When Mary Magdalene, depicted as a former prostitute, is questioned by Clavius (under threat of torture) about the rumors of a resurrected Yeshua, she is so overwhelmed by what she has experienced that she can do little but weep. Yet, the case with the apostles is remarkably different. The only word to describe their demeanor most of the time is … giddy. That’s the word for it. They seem always to be laughing, bubbling with joy, in one way or another. Initially this emotion jolts the pious viewer, habituated (as he should be) to a reverence for the Lord Jesus Christ. But this reverence is not the first, or even most important, emotion that his first disciples would have experienced on learning that the one whom they’d loved and to whom they’d devoted their lives but whose life had been remorselessly crushed from him was now up and walking and talking and eating — and laughing — in continuing his love-drenched ministry. Their first emotion would be, I expect … giddiness. And this is just what the Gospel accounts indicate (Mt. 28:8; Lk. 24:41, 52).


Cliff Curtis’ portrayal as Yeshua (Jesus Christ) highlights the same emotion. It’s not quite the attitude of Jesus as we view him 2000 years later through the media of traditional interpretations of his immediate post-resurrection activities — a Jesus of solemnity and austerity and the full weight of eternity on his shoulders. Rather, it is Jesus spending time with his closest friends in an upper room and on a seashore and having (dare I say it?) fun. The giddiness of the apostles, led by a loud and ebullient Peter, as they snag a dragnet-breaking school of fish on the suggestion of a Galilean that they tardily realize as none other than their friend Yeshua, is worth the admission price of the movie. This Jesus usually isn’t the Jesus of our theology, but it is the Jesus of the Bible.


Mick LaSalle, reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, is, therefore, correct to say, “Whatever your religious affiliation, you will come away thinking that if all this did actually happen, it probably happened something like this.”


Yes, and probably in ways that he himself doesn’t even grasp.





11 thoughts on ““Risen”: A Cinematic (and Theological) Triumph

  1. jframe2012 says:

    Andrew, I love this. I saw “Risen” this Saturday and was struck by the same thing you bring out: the disciples were “giddy.”

    To me that is psychologically true: knowing that Jesus is alive freed them from the fear, if not the reality, of persecution. That freedom from fear, that joy, is well-expressed by humor.

    The contrast is so sharp between these disciples on one hand and the Jews/Romans on the other. The Jews and Romans were so deadly serious, always looking to kill someone, deathly afraid that someone would kill them.

    I was first attracted to the Christian faith in a church where good-natured ribbing was the rule. We were serious about Christ, but that included seriousness about the abundant joy Jesus had brought into our lives. We felt free to kid the sanctimony about theology, tradition and all.

    The non-Christian world seeks to impose its values on the world by intimidation and force. Christians seek to serve one another (Matt. 20) and to be of good cheer. We seek to keep our leaders happy (Heb. 13:17). To bad the worldly mentality has so often gotten into the church.

    The current critique of prosperity theology gets it wrong. God indeed promises happiness, many times in Scripture. The prosperity theologians sometimes err because they often don’t take account of the fact that the material prosperity, for many, is in the next life. But even for them, there is a joy lying beneath the pain which often promotes laughter.

    I’ll probably write something about this. Thanks for inspiring me.


    Dr. John Frame
    Professor of Systematic Theology & Philosophy
    Reformed Theological Seminary – Celebrating 50 Years


    RTS Campus
    Phone: 407.366.9493
    Fax: 407.366.9425
    Email: jframe@rts.edu
    Web: rts.edu/orlando

    • John: I could not agree with you more. Over the last year or so I’ve taken special care to examine what the Bible teaches about joy and happiness, and I find that it is a truly pervasive theme and, in fact, one of God’s command of his people. I have come to believe that theologies that rob God’s people of their joy and happiness are no better than the prosperity gospel that promises infallible material blessings to all believers if only they have faith.

  2. You might check out “Stop the Pounding Heart.” While not produced by Christians, for Christians, it is a film with an overtly Christian message that premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

  3. Linda Broesamle says:

    Thanks for the great ‘write up’… I’m forwarding to folks! We also really enjoyed the movie.. good one!


  4. Connie Graves says:

    Andrew, Thanks for the review of “Risen.” Connie and I plan to see it – especially after what you said about it.  Connie actually knows one of the producers, i.e. Mickey Liddell. I have just about finished going through my articles and will pick out what I think  are the best and send them. I found a copy on “the Purpose of the Bill of Rights” that was published in the Journal of Reconstruction. Godspeed, Bill

  5. Pingback: The Daily Discovery (February 26, 2016) - Entreating Favor

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