What if somebody, a skeptic, tried to find out what really happened to Jesus’ body in the days and weeks following the discovery of the empty tomb? That’s the premise of the new movie Risen.
Pontius Pilate tasks Clavius, a Roman tribune (upper class military officer), with tracking down the body of Jesus after two guards claim his disciples overpowered them and stole it in the night. Clavius should be able to identify the body since he was present at the crucifixion. However, something doesn’t add up in the guards’ stories, and he suspects the Jewish religious leaders are trying to cover up the truth. After tracking down Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, and others, Clavius ultimately finds himself facing the undeniable truth that Jesus truly did rise from the dead.
The film has a lot going for it. Many Christians were disappointed with how Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings changed the Bible stories they were based on, going so far as to promote agendas wholly opposed to the Bible’s teachings. Because Risen focuses on a non-biblical character, the movie was free to be more creative and keep the audience guessing without altering the Bible story nearly as much (though alter it they did—more on that in a minute). This take on the Easter story felt fresh. To see Clavius turning things over in his mind while scouring the empty tomb was exciting because I knew he wasn’t looking at it as the scene of the resurrection, but the scene of a crime. The filmmakers show Pontius Pilate washing his hands while essentially saying the truth about what happened to Jesus’ body was irrelevant, a visual allusion to his actions prior to the crucifixion—brilliant. The best part for me was when Clavius bursts into the room where the disciples are hiding, expecting to catch those responsible for removing Jesus’ body. As he scans the room, his eyes fix on the figure in the middle, and it’s the same man he saw dead, hanging on a cross. Clavius is so overwhelmed by shock that he has to back out of the room. In virtually every other film where Jesus appears after the resurrection shock gives way to joy. Seeing the shock and confusion linger was the most visually satisfying moment of the film.
Despite the praise, I had a few issues with movie. Although I was disappointed to see the burial cloth shown to be the Shroud of Turin in a clear nod to Roman Catholic superstition, the big problem came in the third act. The film could have ended right after Clavius discovers that Jesus is alive, leaving him and the audience to think about what it means that he rose from the dead. It would have been powerful and left filmgoers with something to talk about. Unfortunately, the film continues as Clavius accompanies the remaining disciples as they travel to Galilee to wait for Jesus. There’s a strange “Hobbits escaping from the Nazgül” moment, and the disciples accept Clavius into their group in a way that, given the conflict in Acts 15, seems terribly out of place.
I’ve yet to see a “Christian film” that could rival The Passion of the Christ in terms of production and story quality, and Risen is no exception. You’re not going to see any Oscar nominations for this film, and it’s not because Hollywood is prejudiced against Christianity. Sitting in the theater, I felt like I was watching a well-made, made-for-TV movie. It’s certainly one of the better Christian films out there, but it’s not something that begs for the full-blown theater experience. I expect this movie will be on Netflix or Amazon Prime within a year, and in a few years we should expect to see it on television at Easter time.