My wife and I recently watched the 2016 film “Risen”, directed by Kevin Reynolds (Waterworld, The Count of Monte Christo) starring Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, and Cliff Curtis. The film starts with a group of Roman soldiers relentlessly battling an insurrection of angry Jews, led by a man famously known as Barabbas. The leader of the Roman cohort is a tribune named Clavius, who is summoned by Pontius Pilate, and commanded to deal with a new situation surrounding a man called Yeshua, who states he is the Messiah and will rise again in three days after his gruesome death. Clavius is given the task to contain this “Messiah”, assuring Pilate and the Empire that this Messiah will NOT rise and stay dead once and for all.
Of course, Yeshua’s body doesn’t stay in the tomb on the morning of the third day. For the remainder of the film, a skeptical Clavius and his men are determined to find a body matching Jesus’ description in only a few days before decay makes it impossible to identify. All they find in the tomb is the supposed “Shroud of Turin”. Clavius doesn’t simply want theories of what could have happened to Jesus’ body, but he wants the facts and truth from the entire experience. He wants to SEE for himself what happened to the body of Jesus, while keeping his cynicism and jadedness at bay.
For starters, the movie is definitely thought-provoking. There were many scenes my wife and I paused so we could discuss further about the film’s interpretation – whether they got it right, pretty close, or way off. The film does an exemplary job at creating an outsider perspective of the final days of Jesus’ pre-crucifixion life and post-crucifixion resurrected glory and mystery. There are many Biblical references included in Risen that other Jesus movies leave out completely. For example, one of my favorite scenes showed Joseph of Arimathea coming to claim the body of Jesus with Nicodemus, immediately after Jesus breathed his last. We don’t know much about Joseph of Arimathea from Scripture. In fact, he’s only mentioned in the final chapters of all four gospels for purchasing a tomb to place Jesus in. After that, he’s never heard of again. Many Jesus-centered films skip over him, assuming he wasn’t that “crucial” to the story. Risen covers Joseph of Arimathea, Scripture being fulfilled where Jesus’ legs aren’t broken on the cross, the Roman centurion being convicted that day, Thomas feeling Jesus’ wounds, and Jesus’ Ascension. Joseph Fiennes (Clavius) does a excellent job acting bewildered and confused throughout the movie, especially when he encounters Jesus and his disciples for the first time after Jesus has been risen, while they hide in what appears to be the “upper room”. Seeing Jesus risen turns his entire belief system upside-down.
This isn’t saying much these days, but for a PG-13 rated film, Risen is graphic and violent. I commend the film for reminding viewers how brutal life could be back then, specifically in the crucifixion scene and afterwards (which is within the first 10 minutes). Jesus and the other two men are shown hanging on crosses, being held up by nails, Jesus’ side being pierced is shown, while later, the other two men are shown having the nails pulled out from their bodies to be hastily drug into an uncovered pit full of decaying bodies from other crucifixions. The scenes depicted are true and accurate, but still caught me off-guard from its PG-13 rating, especially if one compares it to Mel Gibson’s R-rated The Passion (2004). Other scenes are surprisingly graphic, such as the Roman soldiers digging up bodies in a Hebrew cemetery just to see if it is Jesus’ body that was “stolen”.
Another common misconception was Risen’s interpretation of Mary Magdalene. Risen depicts her as being a “woman of the street”, although the Bible never labels her this way. The Bible only describes her as a sinner, which is what we all are (Luke 18:13, Romans 3:23). The Bible paints her as a faithful follower, servant and friend of Jesus, nothing more. She was once known for having seven demons (Mark 16:9, Luke 8:2), but never a woman who slept with multiple men. The way she speaks in the film is contrary to this lifestyle as well, almost casting her as a woman with a sinful lifestyle. In one scene, Clavius is trying to find Mary, who later goes into a brothel of sorts. He asks a group of men if they “know” Mary in the Biblical sense of the word, and all 10 or more men raise their hands, implying they had sexual interactions with her. Way too many liberties with Mary Magdalene were taken. Risen also had a strange depiction of Barnabas, almost as if he were border-line crazy. Barnabas was known as the “son of encouragement” – so granted, most likely he was always in a good mood, with encouragement being his gift, but encouragement doesn’t bring about borderline insanity or saying odd things like “our only weapon is love” and the Apostles are “everywhere”, then laughing suspiciously.
My least favorite scene was how they depicted the Ascension of Jesus. In the Bible, Jesus remains on the earth for 40 days before his Ascension (Acts 1:3), where in the movie, it was only 4-5 days. When it comes time for Jesus to ascend, he doesn’t go up into the sky, being later blocked by clouds. Instead, he walks toward a sunrise and vanishes, causing a shockwave of wind to burst forth, almost knocking down all the Apostles. The movie also leaves out the two angels that arrive to encourage the Apostles and ask them why they’re standing around looking up at the sky (Acts 1:10-11), which was a scene I was looking forward to seeing!
Overall, I award “Risen” a 7/10. The film does a wonderful job at reminding believers what they easily take for granted in the history we have of Jesus in the Gospels. From an outsider-looking-in, Risen asks the question, “Why wouldn’t you believe?” after seeing everything Clavius did. The film is centered around him telling a man everything he experienced. He tells the man very plainly, “I can never be the same.” Words of genuine conversion and repentance, a decision he could have never come to on his own. If anything, Risen does a remarkable job at showing us how blessed we are to be in Christ and how VALID the testimony of Christianity is for mankind. Christianity is the only religion where hundreds and thousands of people saw the same risen Messiah, and vouched for that testimony at all costs, even suffering gruesome deaths under many Roman emperors. As John the Apostle would later state about Jesus’ resurrection, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life-- the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” 1 John 1:1-4.
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