Risen sets another high mark for faith-based film. Like Captive last year, it is somewhat messy, compelling and believable as a story – and on top of all that, it has to do with Jesus Himself.
The film also appears to be a spiritual successor to The Passion of the Christ, one of the most successful Jesus films of all time. It even emulates it at times in look and sound (though profoundly less violent) However, Risen elaborates on the central idea that Passion just touched upon (the Resurrection and Ascension), and picked up where Mel Gibson left off.
This movie shows that given quality showmanship and experienced actors and director, Christian-themed films can be not only poignant but entertaining. The production value alone makes it better in style and substance than any of the most recent, “feel good” Christian fare. And the story is told in a clever way that will hold an audience’s attention.
More than just a story about the Resurrection, its detective-story base makes for an interesting exploration of one of the most basic aspects of sharing our faith with others.
The Search Begins… SPOILERS AHEAD!
Stuff I Liked
I was surprised how beautiful this movie is visually, especially the sets. It retains the gritty, realistic hue of The Passion of the Christ, though definitely lighter in tone. One of the most obvious ties was the music.
Roque Banos’ score is outstanding. It perfectly conveys the emotion of each scene, easily changing from large epic to intimate. But what I loved most was Banos’ use of vocals and ethnic instruments. Definitely emulating John Debney’s score from Passion. He mixes old-world style with modern orchestras and it’s really quite beautiful. Even the end credits track has a bit of symbolism to it, with a single clarinet starting the melody (Jesus’ leitmotif throughout the film), and then accompanied by the entire orchestra – symbolizing the spreading of the Gospel.
It’s always interesting to see a familiar story told from a different perspective. This film takes the Resurrection and Ascension and lets us see it through the eyes of a bystander – and not even a believer, but a Roman tribune named Clavius. It reminded me of the classic epic Ben-Hur – with its central story tangentially connected to the story of Christ. Though Risen is definitely closer to the story than Ben-Hur was.
The filmmakers cleverly treated film as a detective story, where Clavius plays the part of the investigative force. It’s a great way of making a well-known story like this compelling enough to hold the audience’s attention. Procedural dramas like CSI and Castle are very popular in the culture today. What helped this approach was that the film is presented entirely from Clavius’ perspective, with the tribune seeing the aftermath of events with no omniscient pull-away for the audience. It was entirely matter-of-fact, as presented.
This film has the markings of an experienced, capable director. Kevin Reynolds, whose credits include Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Count of Monte Cristo (a favorite of my wife and I), crafts beautiful scenes with very capable actors. My favorite scene was when Clavius discovers the resurrected Jesus for the first time. The scene is shot and cut in such a way as to convey Clavius’ disbelief at what he is seeing, and it’s wonderful and haunting.
The actors were all very talented and gave great performances. Joseph Fiennes is a great lead, and like director Reynolds, lends a bit of Hollywood gravitas to this production. The apostles, for the most part, are good. Maria Botto, who plays Mary Magdalene, only has one real scene. But oh, what a scene! She beautifully conveys the power of Christ’s redemption in a few words and actions.
Speaking of Jesus, Cliff Curtis’ portrayal was one of the best I have every seen. I think it actually rivals Jim Caviezel’s in Passion. Not only is Curtis a more probable look for Jesus in terms of skin tone, but his performance is warm, personable and welcoming. There is no outward indication that He is the Messiah. He’s dirty, nondescript – exactly how Jesus would have looked. The only thing that told the audience that something else was going on was his gaze and his caring personality.
The scene with Jesus healing a leper, for example, was extremely powerful. He embraced this man who had been spit upon and cast out, and helped him to his feet. It was touching, and conveyed the personal connection we have with Christ.
Stuff I Didn’t Like
The story is indeed an interesting look at the Gospels. However, I think this story relies too heavily on the audience knowing the details. Clavius does provide via narration an overview of the historic situation at the start of the film, but I think it isn’t enough for the layperson to understand. It doesn’t make the film hard to follow. It would just have been nice to provide some more context.
While the production value of this film is indeed above and beyond the normal Christian movie, there are still instances where the lack of budget is felt. The earthquake effects at the beginning of the film are awkward and poorly done. It definitely looks like CGI, and bad CGI at that. But I can’t really fault it, given the low budget compared to that of a typical Hollywood blockbuster.
The few scenes involving Bartholomew the disciple really bothered me. In one instance, he was being interrogated by Clavius for information and his disposition was more modern, drawing comparisons in my mind to a surfer-dude type of character. I understood why he was happy – being filled with the Spirit. But he came across as overly enthusiastic, enough to take me out of the movie. Mary Magdalene’s response to the tribune’s query was more in line with what I was looking for. Bartholomew was just weird.
Stuff to Ponder
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Galatians 2:20
The framing device of Risen was simple, yet inspired. At first, I thought this bit of dramatic exposition was superfluous. The story is told in flashback, bookended by Clavius telling his story of redemption to a helpful stranger who took him in during a sandstorm. And the film ends with the now changed tribune on his way to tell others about what he has seen. As I began to think about it more, I realized that the bookends were the whole point of the film: the power of personal testimony.
During his search for Jesus’ body in the first two acts of the film, Clavius relies heavily on eyewitness accounts to solve the mystery, as the physical evidence points to something he does not believe to be true. These accounts are from both believers and non-believers, and they range in tone from ultimate joy to profound fear. Clavius dismisses them at first, but realizes that he has been looking at the situation all wrong, especially when faced with the gut-wrenching account of one his own – one of the Roman centurions who guarded the tomb.
“We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which has been given about His Son.” 1 John 5:9
A person’s testimonial to how Christ has changed their life may seem like a simple thing. It is as personal as it is powerful, and no one can take it from you. God has given us this great power to let others know of His grace and love. He built us as relational beings, and our testimony is a personal way to relate to someone else. In His unfathomable wisdom, God created a way for us to relate to and love on other people and tell His story at the same time.
The importance of testimony is directly emphasized in the film. When Clavius converses directly with Jesus, he expresses his doubt, even in the literal presence of Christ. Jesus responds, “If it’s hard for you to believe, imagine the doubt of those who will never see.” It was entirely up to the apostles to covey the story of the Resurrection. The divine testimonies of those eleven men were the catalyst God used to reach millions. Now it is up to us, followers of Jesus Christ, to continue to tell God’s story through our own experience with Him.
So What I’m Trying to Say is…
Risen is a unique and inspired retelling of The Greatest Story Ever Told that holds the viewer’s attention from beginning to end. Unlike most “Christian” films, it is well acted, directed and produced. The Christian film industry should look at this movie and emulate its style, tone and clever use of budget.
This film shows more than anything the power of a testimony to change hearts and minds. The personal experiences of the apostles opened the doors of heaven to millions of people. We, as Christians, must continue this sacred tradition of telling God’s story to those we know and those we do not. Jesus Himself charged us with this commission, and your personal story is a powerful tool to let the light shine through.
Originally posted on Reel World Theology.
Starring Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth and Cliff Curtis
Written by Kevin Reynolds and Paul Aiello (based on a story by Aiello)
Directed by Kevin Reynolds