'Tis the season for religious-themed movies and in particular for biblical would-be epics. With yesterday's opening of Risen, this year does not disappoint, which is itself saying something, since many such films are often so disappointingly unimpressive and so have a comparably short shelf life. Risen likely will win no Oscar nominations, but it at last deserves to be seen-- not just for its inherent message but for the clever way it approaches the familiar story.
Risen looks at the events of Jesus' death and resurrection through pagan Roman eyes - the eyes of Clavius, the Roman Tribune who, fresh from slaughtering some Zealots in a minor skirmish, is ordered by Pilate to supervise the shutting down of the Crucifixion. Thus, he becomes the one who orders Jesus's side to be pierced with the centurion's spear. (All of which reminds me of my favorite fictional Passion account as seen through Roman eyes - Louis De Wohl's 1955 novel The Spear, which I read while in high school and which is based on the story of the Roman Centurion [Saint] Cassius Longinus.]
As is to be expected in such films, the acting is modest, but Joseph Fiennes puts in a great performance as Clavius, as does Harry Potter's Tom Felton as Clavius' military aide. As usual, the script takes historical liberties. I don't think any sitting Emperor ever sailed into Caesarea. Certainly Tiberius didn't - and certainly not during that first Easter season! Mary Magdalene was not really "a woman of the street," Saint Bartholomew was probably not to comic figure he is portrayed as, and the word "crusade" still had another thousand years or so to be invented. Nor were any romans or other Gentiles among the first to see the Risne Lord.
That said, the film takes a clever approach - asking us to imagine how Pilate, et al., might have reacted to the news of the empty tomb. Sending his smart and ambitious Tribune to investigate and prove that the disciples have stolen the body, makes for a good plot-line to bring Clavius (who just wants to advance in his career and then enjoy wealth and otium in the Roman countryside) from conventional pagan to potentially converted disciple.
The film's problem is that, of course, Jesus body will never be found. Neither will the authorities kill off or intimidate Jesus' disciples and so stifle the story that way. So exactly how is the story to end? Clavius improbably gets to witness Doubting Thomas's encounter with the Risen Lord and thereafter even more improbably tags along with the Eleven as they return to Galilee to reenact the rest of John's Gospel, plus a healing miracle imported from the earlier life, culminating in a version of Mathew's Ascension scene. In the Gospel story, no one was pursuing the apostles from jerusalem to Galilee, but the movie's fictionalized Roman pursuit give Clavius a chance to use his soldierly skills to keep the infant Church safe to preach another day. Short of becoming one of the Apostles himself, however, what is Clavius to do? The movie seems at time to be wanting to end but unsure of how to do so.
Still, very timelessness and universality of the historical Christian story lends itself to fictional thought experiments like this one. Risen represents an admirable approach - and certainly a better one than some attempts, which skirt around the story's challenges and the inherently life-altering dimension of the experience.