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.