Risen is a very good film that just happens to be marketed to faith-based audiences.
Please don’t be fooled. I am a skeptic — not of Jesus’s bodily resurrection, which serves as the historical basis for Risen‘s story — but of “Christian” movies. I don’t dislike their idea, because Christians should have subcultures, too, but rather, their usual execution. However, Risen does what it wants, and fulfills its own goal not only with biblical truth but with creative excellence.
Much of the time I was sitting in the theater gripped by emotion. I felt this way partly because of my personal connection to my Savior’s resurrection. Yet I was also thinking, “This is good. This is actually good. Will it stop being good? No, it’s actually staying good.”This film isn’t a “biblical epic” as some reflexively label it. It’s a character journey.
Finally, I put away that childish thought. I found myself caught up in a simply told story based on the Story that transcends our comparatively small debates over “Christian” movies and how brilliant/terrible they are. This story subverts all that just by setting about its job: exploring one (fictional) human person’s response to the results of the resurrected Christ.
Prologue: The Context of “Christian movies”
I could simply ignore the “Christian” movie debate and move on, but that would risk doing readers a disservice. I would also risk raising expectations for some high artistic/spiritual experience, then have you exit the theater thinking, “Well, what was the big deal?”
So instead I must concede the context: “Christian” movies — that is, films that specifically deal with biblical faith themes and are often directed at Christian viewers — are notorious because they are over-adored by fans as the pinnacle of faith-derived storytelling. They are also (and mostly rightly) panned by secular critics and those types of Christians who dislike the frequent insulation and shallowness of the American evangelical subculture.
For example, two trailers for other “faith-based” films ran before Risen. One was for God’s Not Dead 2, which pits a pretty, blond American Christian teacher against the ACLU (dum-dum-DUMMM) in an American courtroom. Another was about an American Christian(?) family with umpteen dozen green acres and a large farmhouse who must struggle(?) with their pretty blond daughter’s miraculous healing. (The trailer seemingly surrendered the end.)
When she sees such shtick, my wife makes a comical sniffing sound. I have taken to imitating it. These films vex many Christians due to poor acting and simplistic themes, but they’re also vexing because of the overwhelming praise and support they receive from our Christian friends and neighbors. Even those of us who dislike art snobbery find such praise disproportionate.
I have tried to like such films, and perhaps they have a place. But why must Christian fans stop at those kinds of stories and proclaim them our best? Biblical Christianity calls us to explore creatively deeper stories that cross cultures and, even at the popular level, show God’s truths and beauties onscreen — including themes that go beyond conversion stories, “miracle” accounts, and American social issues. But many members of the “faith-based market” seem not to want these images. They prefer seeing themselves on screen, or rather, distorted, idealized pictures of themselves who find miracles and cultural victories.
Cannot Christians go beyond such contemporary genres? We also have biblical accounts such as the Son of God movie and The Bible TV series. I have not seen either, mainly because I find their approaches just as limiting. Stories that adapt specific biblical accounts will naturally take dramatic license that irritates the “fanbase.” But over-faithfulness might actually make for poorer movies. Scripture’s accounts — despite their truth, drama and timelessness — aren’t structured like a modern film narrative, nor should they be.
Biblical Faith through Biblical Fiction
What’s the solution? I have wondered for a while about the genre twist that Risen follows so well: Create fictional characters imbued with realism and then share their stories, which interact with or touch upon the historical biblical accounts. In fact, Christians have been doing this for decades! My first experience of this was the 1980s Christian-produced anime series Superbook, in which time-traveling children experience biblical events. We’ve also had Ben-Hur and The Robe and other novels (and film versions) in which fictional characters encounter Christ.
That fine tradition continues with Risen, in which Roman tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes of Shakespeare in Love and Luther) and freshman soldier Lucius (Tom Felton of the Harry Potter films) find their lives interrupted by the crucifixion and resurrection of Yeshua.
This film isn’t a “biblical epic” as some reflexively label it. It’s a character journey.
After Risen’s title comes no intro text with the letters “A.D.” or any Bible verse. We see Clavius in the wilderness, clad in his remnants of Roman armor. He approaches us and stares off-camera, his dirt-encrusted face a mask of shock and world-weariness. Clearly he has seen something go down. I felt drawn to his side and to his yet-to-be-shared-story.
Before any of the “Bible story” parts begin, we see Clavius leading Roman soldiers against a troop of wild revolutionaries. He quietly, easily dispatches a zealot with a familiar name. But Clavius isn’t cruel. He’s a dutiful, professional officer of the law. When he shares with someone that he wants power and ambition, he’s only saying that. Like a good “noble pagan,” he reveals he’s a true believer in at least one false god, and longs for a day beyond war when he can salvage a quiet countryside and live the rest of his short life in peace.
To describe this, I’m necessarily reduced to using words. Don’t misunderstand. Risen fulfills one of the basics of better cinematic stories that many Christian films don’t: what you see tells the story just as much, if not more, than what you hear. We don’t just hear about them but we see biblical images fleshed out — such as Clavius clad in blood and filth versus the clean washing of water, and the constant images of death’s decay versus the offer of eternal life and peace.
I must give away that last one. This biblical film shows the gruesome long-term results of death, wounds, bodies, and fleshly decay. These images don’t simply fulfill a “first-century police procedural genre” rule. Instead, they remind us about the consequences of death. To Clavius, the idea of true, transforming eternal life and peace is unbelievable yet meaningful. Thus his journey’s results feel real and earned. Death images also subtly support a basic biblical argument: Clavius is a professional soldier whose very business is death. He would be among the first impartial witnesses to verify that someone dead had returned to life.
Appeal to Audiences
Director/co-writer Kevin Reynolds and writer Paul Aiello find new and even fun ways to portray Jesus’s apostles as unique yet recognizable. The story invites Christians to see themselves in Bartholomew’s naïveté and grants non-Christians permission to recognize their Christian neighbors. And the apostle Peter is a true believer, yet still fighting to give up his persistent sword-happy ways. He and Clavius share a memorable encounter that is particularly faithful to Scripture’s portrayal of Christ’s aggressive, impulsive disciple.
As for Jesus himself, his portrayal is a pleasant surprise. Especially after the distance the film initially places between him and Clavius, I wasn’t expecting the story’s turn but I was quite happy with it. I was also happy with the writers’ wise phrasing when Jesus asks someone what he desires; peace and a day without death is the answer. Jesus smiles knowingly and states, “Well then. Know Him.” It’s as much a sincere appeal to the audience as it is a story-world emphasis on not just Yeshua, but the full Godhead under Yahweh’s name.
At this point skeptics or critics may deride this film for simplistically catering to “faith-based” viewers. Some seem to disagree with the fundamental premise that Christians (as any other group) are allowed to have their own cultures. We may find fault with such a story’s execution, but let us not use that as a cover for disliking the story’s very existence or its clear mission to please fans of the Book. Plenty of other movies do that.
Some critics are also over-simplifying Risen’s genre. Some have insisted the movie ought to be in the “police procedural” genre, only first-century style, then they criticize the story’s lack of tension because, ha ha, we already know the mystery’s conclusion! This reverses which story came first: The mystery of Jesus’s missing body was first shown by Scripture, not a “CSI” TV series. Risen does not try to follow any formula. Let us reject that restriction. Rather, the investigation is only one small part of Clavius’s personal and miraculous story.
Yes, Risen shows miracles, especially the miracle of Jesus’s personal, bodily resurrection that all Christians accept as historical, life-changing reality. Let us not confuse this with the approach of stereotypical Christian movies in which nice polite people live miraculous, overall-happy middle-class American lives even before their life-changing miracles begin. Real miracles are not like that. Real-life miracles ambush you, breaking into reality when you’re not looking. Then the real miracle quietly slips away amongst the clamor of real life, leaving us shaken and confused, yet also willing to consider drastic life changes.
Risen dares to explore this theme, and even dares to portray its heroes’ certainty-yet-with-questions. Then the film, like a small miracle, quietly takes its leave. I would actually urge you not to let this story slip away too quietly. Temper your expectations, take friends and see this film, then allow yourself to be genuinely hopeful — and dare I say it, even inspired.