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.”
A Well-Made Movie
Risen isn’t just thematically and historically accurate, it also succeeds as a film. Impressive cinematography captures each powerful scene—from the stunning courtyard of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, to the pomp of the Roman palace, to the sprawling desert wastes and the bloody tragedy of the crucifixion.
Events unfold in front of a frantic, soaring score, adding even more depth of emotion to such stunning scenes. The pacing is spot on, between Roman questionings, the pursuit of fleeing Jews, and the contrasting peace of Yeshua’s disciples.
The acting proves slightly more mixed. Fiennes presents a fantastic everyman, and Felton’s ambitious lieutenant provides a strong counterpoint. Yeshua’s disciples are a bit simplistic. Stephen Hagan, who plays the disciple Bartholomew, is both nervous and giddy, but comes across as unconvincing. Stewart Scudamore brings slightly more nuance to the character of Peter, but the most compelling is Cliff Curtis, who makes a wonderful, mysterious Yeshua.
Even what might be the film’s greatest weakness is defensible on an artistic basis. Risen presents Yeshua’s disciples as carefree, inexplicably happy and peaceful. This image is simplistic, and somewhat reminiscent of the 1970s “hippie” culture. In the only historical documents we have about their lives (the Gospels), the disciples come across as a much more complicated bunch, theologically sophisticated and riven with pride, confusion, and doubt.
In the days after the Resurrection, the disciples were likely shell-shocked, and might have been more confident, more focused on Jesus’ message of love, and less self-absorbed. In the eyes of a strait-laced, militaristic Roman, during this short period of time, they might have come across as carefree, nomadic, and peaceful—even unintelligible in a world which valued conquest and political rule above all else. The disciples’ portrayal in this way is thus speculation, but it is defensible on the grounds that it provides a contrast with the Roman way of living.
The Centrality of the Resurrection
In Christian theology, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most important moment in history. It proved that Jesus was God and that God will raise believers from death. Not all Jews at the time believed this—the influential sect of Sadducees denied any resurrection.
Christians believe that Jesus Christ, by dying on the cross, paid the penalty for all the sins of those who believe in him. He could do this because he is fully God and fully man, the one person not tainted by sin. His resurrection is proof not just of his divinity, but of his promise that his followers will be raised from death with him.
If Jesus did not rise from the dead, he was not God, and therefore his death could not atone for sins. As St. Paul put it, “and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).
Risen has a few minor details which fall short of full biblical accuracy, including how many people were present for certain events. On the flipside, there are a few likely accurate details—not explicitly mentioned in scripture, but probable based on history—which flesh out the story further.
Overall, this film provides a stunning portrayal of the events behind the Christian teaching that this one man, after being fully dead, was Risen. Indeed, this movie does for the resurrection what The Passion of the Christ accomplished for the crucifixion—it brings the historical bedrock of the Christian story to vibrant light.