Thursday, February 11, 2016

Risen: A Movie Review

A year or two ago, my wife, my two sisters, and my brother-in-law all went to see the movie Noah.  I was excited to see the movie, as it looked exciting and dramatic and its subject matter was derived from the Bible.  I left the movie utterly disappointed, mostly because I thought the story recorded in the Bible was more interesting than the one they cooked up for the movie (the same is true, but even more so, for the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings).  There were some parts of the movie that I liked, and some that I thought were artful and beneficial ways of telling the story.  But overall, the big biblical epics that Hollywood has produced have been, in my opinion, less than satisfying mostly because they have diverged from the biblical text to such a large degree.

Making a Christian movie that is simultaneously good and faithful to the biblical text is a difficult task, however, and I'm usually willing to give most Christian movies a lot of leeway in that regard.  Unfortunately, it usually seems that most Christian movies can't be both good and biblical - usually it seems that they are either one or the other: they are very biblical (but not what you'd call a good movie - here I defer to the cheeseball factor), or they are good and have a high production value, but are not at all biblical (see: Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings for example).

Today, I saw a movie that broke the Christian-Movie-Mold, and was both a fantastic movie and was, for the most part, very faithful to the biblical text. (See the trailer for the movie here.)

I was one of a movie theater full of pastors who was invited to a pre-screening of the movie Risen.  I plan to give a full synopsis of the film, so if you don't want to spoil the story for yourself, you'll want to stop reading soon (I'll give you a warning before I get into the actual story).  But suffice it to say, the movie was very good.  It was very biblical, very well done, and a great story (with an almost non-existent cheeseball factor).  I highly recommend it.  It would be good for most people to see, although it is rated PG-13, and for good reason.  There is a violent battle scene at the beginning of the film, and many people are stabbed.  Immediately following the initial violence is the scene of the crucifixion, which is also a bit rough, but is in no way comparable to the level of violence and gore of The Passion of the Christ.  The crucifixion scene in Risen is far less gory and violent in comparison.  After these two opening scenes, there is very little violence to speak of in the rest of the film,  although the story revolves around a search for the (supposedly) dead body of Jesus, so there are several corpses shown as the search goes on, and some of the corpses are somewhat gruesome in appearance.  As far as language is concerned, there are no coarse words used throughout the film.

The two films I mentioned earlier - Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings - both used the Bible as a starting place for their stories, and then added all kinds of extra stories and events to the biblical accounts, presumably to make the stories more interesting and/or dramatic.  The cost of doing this, however, is the sacrifice of the actual biblical text and the story contained therein.  To me, this did not help the stories in either movie, and in fact, detracted from my appreciation of them.  The genius of Risen is that it brings a completely unique story to the table - that of a search for the supposedly dead body of Jesus amidst rumors of his resurrection - and somehow remains very close to the biblical texts.  The balance struck between biblical text and fictional story was, to me, masterful.  I had a few quibbles here and there (see below), but they were exceptionally minor.

Now, with that being said, on to a synopsis of the movie (so if you don't want it spoiled, now is the time to stop reading).

The movie opens with a group of Roman soldiers in the midst of a battle with a group of presumably Jewish Zealots, led by none other than the recently-released Barabbas.  The movie presumes Barabbas as a member of the Zealots (a Jewish group that allegedly used what are akin to acts of terror against the Romans for their occupation of Israel).  Clavius, a Roman Tribune, is in command of the troops, who ultimately capture Barabbas after the brief battle, whom Clavius immediately executes.  Before his execution, Barabbas tells Clavius that "When the Messiah comes, Rome will be nothing!"  Clavius, of course, is unconvinced and quickly dispatches Barabbas.

Upon his return to the praetorium (Pilate's base of operations), Clavius is sent to "end" a crucifixion already in progress by breaking the legs of the crucified.  Clavius doesn't realize it, but this is the crucifixion of Jesus.  Like a dutiful soldier, Clavius goes to the crucifixion and puts an end to it, without giving it a second thought.  But before the bodies are taken down from the crosses, Joseph of Arimathea arrives with a document that allows him to claim the body of Jesus and bury him in his own tomb.

By the end of the day, the Sanhedrin has visited Pilate and asked him to seal the tomb and put guards outside of it, for fear that Jesus' disciples will steal his body and thereby create a resurrection myth which will only serve to rile up the people.  Pilate begrudgingly agrees with their reasoning and he instructs Clavius to see to it, which he does.  The tomb is sealed with a stone that requires seven men to roll it into place.  Furthermore, the stone is bound with rope and sealed with a tamper-proof wax seal, and two men are left to guard the tomb.  Here the film is somewhat unrealistic (although it's not a big deal), as the Bible says that Pilate set "a guard of soldiers" over the tomb (see Matthew 27.65).  This number almost certainly would have been more than two - probably more like a dozen.  After all, what good would two soldiers do if a mob of angry, riled up followers came in the middle of the night to steal the body?  So the notion that only two soldiers were left to guard the tomb is almost certainly wrong.  But again, this is a minor detail and does not upset the story at all, in my opinion.

On the third day after the death of Jesus - you guessed it - the stone is found to be rolled away, the seal broken, and the tomb empty.  Clavius inspects the tomb and discovers the "Shroud of Turin" among the grave clothes (Note: this, to me, is the biggest cheeseball moment in the movie, but it was very easy to overlook).  The Jewish leaders are in a panic, as they are certain that this will create an uprising, and Pilate is inclined to agree.  Therefore, in order to quell any kind of uprising and to squash the rumors that Jesus had risen from the dead, he tasks Clavius with the job of finding the mortified body of the Nazarene, and to do whatever he has to do in order to accomplish this task.  Clavius reluctantly agrees to the assignment, although he seems to find it rather a troublesome, irksome task.

The first people he tracks down in his investigation are the two guards who were at the tomb.  But the guards have been given temporary sanctuary by the Jewish leaders, as the leaders have bribed them to tell a certain story, and in so doing have guaranteed their safety, as they would have certainly come under punishment from their superiors for having allowed the body to be "removed."  One solider whom Clavius interrogates gives him the rehearsed lines that the Jewish leaders have told him to say, but Clavius isn't buying it - he knows that something is up.  He orders all bodies who have expired within the last week to be exhumed and examined - especially those who have been crucified - and all those who have stated publicly that Jesus has risen from the dead to be arrested and interrogated.

From here, the movie takes on a "Law & Order" feel, as Clavius begins to interrogate those who claim that Jesus has risen from the dead.  But in all of his interrogations, he has yet to question an actual disciple of Jesus.  They are all in hiding, and most of the people he talks to are tight-lipped about revealing their location.  Finally, he bribes a man who gives up the location of Bartholomew, whom Clavius quickly locates and arrests (Note: there is a small cheeseball factor with the character of Bartholomew, as he seems to be something of a hippie, but again, this is easy to overlook).  Also in this process, Clavius discovers that a woman named Mary Magdalene has been saying that Jesus has risen.  Clavius goes to the barracks and asks some of the common soldiers if any of them know who Mary Magdalene is, which many of them do, implying that they have visited her because she is a prostitute.  While this is definitely the prevailing opinion of Mary Magdalene's profession in Christendom, there is actually no biblical evidence that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  Nevertheless, the story presumes that she was, and so Clavius is able to identify and locate her because many of his soldiers have presumably taken advantage of her services.  She is likewise arrested and interrogated by Clavius, and she challenges him to accept the truth that Jesus truly has risen from the grave.

Finally, Clavius is tipped off to the location of the rest of Jesus' disciples, and he and several other Romans storm a village, searching from house to house.  Clavius is told that the disciples are in an upper room of a specific building, so he ascends the stairs and dramatically pushes open the door with the tip of his sword, ready for battle.  What he finds are all 11 disciples, with a twelfth man in their midst.  He immediately recognizes the twelfth man as the same one whose crucifixion he oversaw several days previous.  He is stunned by this sight, and calls off his men, preventing them from seeing what he has seen.  He tells them to return to base, and he stays with the disciples and Jesus.  In a moment, however, Jesus vanishes, and Mary remembers that he told her to tell the disciples to meet him on a mountain in Galilee.  (Note: here there is a mashup of biblical texts, particularly Matthew 28.10, Luke 24.36-49, and John 20.19-29.  This mashup is a bit confusing, and probably would have been better left out, but again, it does not hinder the story much at all, nor the overall faithfulness of the movie to scripture, at least in my opinion.)

Clavius is so astounded by the fact that the corpse he had been looking for is actually alive and well (and bearing the marks of the manner of his death) that he goes with the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee on the mountain.  In doing so, he deserts from his military obligations and becomes himself the subject of pursuit of the Roman army.  So with centurions hot on his trail, he flees with the disciples, who make a daring escape from a Roman pursuit.  Once in Galilee, Clavius and the disciples find themselves on the seashore with no one there waiting for them.  They don't know what else to do, so they decide to go fishing, making way for the account of John 21.1-14. (Note: there is an extra-biblical scene depicted immediately after the narrative of John 21.1-14 in which Jesus heals a man with a horrible skin condition.  Clavius is talking with Bartholomew, who reveals that Jesus had told the disciples many times that he would die and rise again, but they didn't really believe him.  "Then why did you follow him?" Clavius asks.  And then Jesus heals the man with the horrible skin condition, and Bartholomew says, "That's why."  While this healing isn't recorded in scripture, I found its use in the story to be dramatic and adding to the conversation between Clavius and Bartholomew.)

That night, Clavius has a heart-to-heart conversation with Jesus, in which he admits to Jesus that "I was there, at your death."  "I know," Jesus responds.  "I helped," Clavius confesses.  "I know," Jesus replies.  This is as close to the message of the gospel as the film gets.  It does a superb job of faithfully, biblically recounting the historical events of the resurrection and thereafter, but does not go into detail about why Jesus' death had to occur in God's plan of redemption, and the significance of his resurrection.  While some might find this to be disappointing - and I would agree with them in some regard - again, I do not think this was necessarily the aim of the movie, and so it does not detract from it.  Rather, the aim of the movie was to document and accentuate the resurrection as an historical event - which it more than succeeds in doing.

Early the next morning, the disciples awake to discover that Jesus is yet again not among their number.  They look off in the distance and see him just as the sun is beginning to rise.  They run to him, and he says, "I am going to prepare a place for you.  And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and in Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (Note: this dialogue is a mashup of John 14.3 and Acts 1.8, which again, I do not find to be detrimental to the movie).  After this brief dialogue, Jesus dramatically ascends into heaven.

While the other disciples begin to part ways in order to complete the mission that Jesus has given them, Clavius also goes his own way, although he knows that he cannot go back to Rome and continue his life there because he has been changed by Jesus.  The film closes as he sets out on his own journey.

Roll credits.  Two other final notes:

1. I have found that in most depictions of Jesus on film, it is difficult to give an accurate portrayal without a significant cheeseball factor.  The actor portraying Jesus in Risen in my opinion, overcomes this common difficulty.  He is able to portray Jesus in a way that is sincere and not overly mushy or squishy.  Also, the actor chosen to play Jesus is probably the most ethnically accurate actor ever chosen to portray Jesus on film.  He is a man who appears to be of middle-eastern descent, with olive-colored skin and black hair.  This, to me, was refreshing.  The actors portraying Jesus' disciples are of similar ethnicity.

2. I think it is similarly difficult to portray the relationship between Jesus and his disciples on film.  After all, you have a plutonic relationship between Jesus and 11 men.  Portraying that relationship - again without being squishy, or depicting Jesus and his disciples as "bros" - is challenging.  Again, this film overcomes that challenge, in my opinion - particularly the relationship between Peter and Jesus.

So there you have it.  Hopefully this review was worth the hour of time it took me to write it!  It's a great film and I heartily recommend it to you.

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