'Risen': Hollywood Gets Jesus Right

The hour is late, and the people are restless. Roman troops strike back against Jewish rebels, using their swords and shields to slaughter angry men with slings and rocks. The Roman Centurion leads his troops to victory, but cannot kill the rumor that there is a king in Israel, mightier than Caesar.

Roman Centurion Clavius Aquila Valerius Niger (Joseph Fiennes) is tasked by the Roman governor of Judea, Prefect Pontius Pilate, to deal with the matter of a certain religious leader named Yeshua. The man claimed to be a king—and there is no king but Caesar. The Jewish leaders of the Sanhedrin also fear this man, for he claimed to be God—and there is no God but Yahweh.

So begins the dramatic tale of a manhunt that altered history. Clavius sees Yeshua (Jesus) dead, but three days later, the man’s followers claim he is alive. This Roman, who prays to the pagan god Mars, decides to pray once to the Jewish God Yahweh, and the results are mind-boggling.

Hollywood Gets Jesus Right

After the recent debacles of an environmentalist Noah (2014) and a botched telling of the story of Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), the upcoming film Risen actually gets a Bible story right. Like The Passion of the Christ (2004) before it, this film will likely be hailed by Christians and non-Christians alike for presenting a historically accurate and compelling, intriguing story.

All the details are right—Pilate is anxious to please the emperor and maintain peace among the revolting Jews, the Sanhedrin are anxious to disprove the rumors of Yeshua’s resurrection, and the disciples are serene and confident in their knowledge of a certain earth-shattering event. The guards at the tomb tell their story, and take refuge in the Jewish temple, where rumor has it the Sanhedrin told them what to say.

Risen is not quite history, however. The film follows the tale of Clavius, a fictional character added to the story to give the audience a view of events from a Roman’s eyes. Fiennes, the actor who plays him, is best known for his performances in Shakespeare in Love (1998) and the historical drama Luther (2003), in which he played the famous Reformation figure Martin Luther. He presents a compelling, ambitious leader who becomes engrossed by the events surrounding the disappearance of Yeshua’s body and the mysterious faith of his followers.

The Roman Centurion is driven by ambition—he seeks power so that he can make money, and money so that he can live a good life. In the end, he desires “an end to travail, a day without death, peace.” He is the “everyman,” a character with whom the audience can readily relate, and he becomes a religious seeker, willing to question his own background to come closer to the truth.

That truth becomes harder and harder to understand, as Clavius examines the details of the disappearance of Jesus’ body. The evidence at the scene does not fit the story he is told, and the mystery deepens with every step.

As Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth, best known for The Hunt for Red October) commands Clavius, so Clavius commands Lucius (Tom Felton, best known for his role as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series). This lieutenant follows Clavius’ every word, and longs to take his place, climbing the rings of Roman power.

But that power meets a fundamental challenge, and not like any threat that military might can comprehend. The followers of Yeshua are humble and meek. As one Jewish man says, “if he had lived, I do believe Yeshua would have embraced you as a brother, even as you slew him.” Yeshua did not come to destroy the might of Rome— “this empire means nothing to him,” explains the disciple Bartholomew. While the Romans ask where the disciples keep their weapons, Bartholomew replies, “our only weapon is love.”