Early in Risen is a small moment in which Joseph Fiennes’ protagonist, a Roman tribune named Clavius, having returned to Jerusalem after a bloody skirmish with a cell of Jewish rebel zealots, is summoned to Pontius Pilate. Annoyed, Clavius objects, “I am yet sticky with filth.”
There’s a nice archaic quality to that line, a sense of Clavius as a man of a time and place other than our own. I appreciate a period film allowing characters to feel somewhat alien to us, rather than like modern Westerners playing dress up.
Directed by Kevin Reynolds (The Count of Monte Cristo), who co-wrote with Paul Aiello, Risen is at its best in the early scenes, which depict the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday from a decidedly unfamiliar perspective. Risen might be the only Jesus film in which we first encounter Jesus on the cross, already dead or nearly so.
Risen is concerned enough about defamiliarizing this most familiar of stories so that viewers will see it afresh that the name of Jesus is always given in the Hebrew form, Yeshua. Peter is still Peter and not Cephas (or Petros), and the name Mary, rather than Miriam, is used both for the mother of Jesus and for the Magdalene, but none of these names are used a great deal, and, anyway, Jesus is the name that counts the most.
Risen takes risks with some unconventional choices, and sometimes they pay off. The depiction of the Roman guards at the sepulcher of Joseph of Arimathea as a pair of undisciplined louts who get drunk and apparently fall asleep might raise pious eyebrows on those who prefer to imagine Rome’s finest keeping vigilant watch over the body of Jesus, the better to certify the miracle of Easter morning. But the film’s drama, for the first half at least, depends on uncertainty about exactly what happened, and this version certainly isn’t implausible.
Then, though, comes a key turning point in which uncertainty melts away, and with it much of the film’s interest. Risen is essentially an update on a Golden Age genre that Stephen Whitty dubbed the “Good Pagan movie” — movies like Quo Vadis and The Robe, which tell the Christian story from the perspective of a skeptical Roman citizen or some other unbeliever who comes to faith and repentance, usually in the last act. (The same plot structure was used in pious films set in the modern day, e.g., Come to the Stable.)
Risen positions this conversion in the middle of the film, which is both an ambitious move and a risky one. It’s ambitious because structuring the story to climax in conversion is a safe but limiting choice. “An encounter with Christ should propel the action, not end it,” wrote Harry Cheney in a 1983 review for Christianity Today of a Billy Graham production called The Prodigal. Just how an encounter with Christ should propel the action is, of course, the creative challenge — hence the risk, if the filmmaker has no satisfying answer.
Risen has no satisfying answer. I don’t suppose it will be much of a spoiler if I say that Clavius’ encounter with the risen Christ is literal and in the flesh and that this encounter is the end of the life he has known. Less clear is what sort of life is beginning.
In the second half, the film’s defamiliarizing technique gives way to a sort of midrash on the familiar Gospel Resurrection accounts, seen through the eyes of a fictional tagalong. The effect ranges from diverting (as when Clavius expertly guides the apostles past a Roman search party on the road from Jerusalem to Galilee) to distractingly revisionist (as when Clavius actually joins Peter, James and John in the boat on the fishing outing in John 21!).
Clavius functions here as a kind of audience surrogate, an outsider whose presence invites viewers to imagine themselves in these familiar scenes. The catch is that Clavius is a struggling neophyte, and Risen, despite its more intriguing first half, is ultimately aimed at believing audiences, not skeptics or outsiders, making Clavius a somewhat unpersuasive audience surrogate.
Part of the problem is that Clavius is essentially a cipher: a figure with no history, no notable relationships, no personal context of any kind. We know he is a man of blood and steel and that he looks forward to “a day without death” (meaning other people’s deaths). What does an encounter with Christ mean for such a man? How does it change his approach to life?
These aren’t just important spiritual questions; they’re important dramatic questions. The story of a conversion is a kind of character development, and character development requires specifics. Forgiving some past wrong, overcoming prejudice, exchanging pride for humility, surrender of self-will to the divine will — something.
Clavius isn’t sufficiently developed as a character for such specifics. There is one interesting moment early in the film in which Clavius offers a misguided pagan’s prayer to the Hebrews’ covenant deity; but neither this, nor some late-breaking angst in dialogue with Jesus about seeking “certainty” and fearing “being wrong and wagering eternity on it,” offer much insight into his character. (“Wagering eternity” on one’s beliefs is a jarringly anachronistic idea; Romans didn’t talk or think that way about their religion, and even if one accepts this Pascalian language in a first-century Judeo-Christian context, Clavius’ attempted prayer to Yahweh shows that he is too much a pagan to think so Christianly.)
The other part of the problem, alas, is that the disciples and even the risen Yeshua himself are no better developed and convey little sense of a Christian ethos. Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) is friendly and enigmatic, but he says nothing very surprising, either to us or to Clavius. “There are no enemies here,” Yeshua tells Clavius when the latter bursts into the Upper Room and recognizes the man he saw dead on the cross. Later, when Clavius confesses that he doesn’t know what to ask, Yeshua prompts, “Speak your heart.” Shouldn’t the risen Lord sound more profound than Yoda or Aragorn?
Risen has some strong moments. I like the brief exchange in the opening scene with the captured zealot leader, whom Clavius taunts, “Tell Yahweh you are coming courtesy of Mars.” When the zealot leader shoots back that it must pain Clavius that the one true God chooses the Hebrews and not the Romans, Clavius slyly replies, “Not today.”
Best of all is a scene in a tavern in which Clavius, pursuing all leads on the disappearance of the body of the executed king of the Jews, finally gets the true story from one of the poor guards who was there at the time. The effect of witnessing the immediate aftermath of the resurrection of Jesus is startling, and the film’s best character moment, along with the interrogation of Mary Magdalene (María Botto).
But these strong moments are offset by poor choices. The zealot leader is identified as Barabbas, who would scarcely seem to have had time to get from Pilate’s judgment seat where he was freed that morning to the battle where Clavius kills him; it’s also jarring to think of the first man symbolically set free by Jesus’ death dying before Jesus himself. Anyway, shouldn’t Clavius have taken Barabbas back to Jerusalem for crucifixion?
Confoundingly, Risen actually manages to combine the drawbacks of medieval imagination with the drawbacks of a desacralized Protestant imagination.
Thus, on the one hand, Mary Magdalene is presented as a prostitute, a sixth-century tradition from which she has been absolved both by biblical scholarship and, in good part, in contemporary popular imagination. Risen shows no awareness of contemporary discussion around the portrayal of Jews in Gospel drama; there are no sympathetic Jewish characters who are not disciples of Jesus. Nor are the women disciples, who were the first to discover the empty tomb and to encounter the risen Christ, given much attention.
On the other hand, in the otherwise very effectively imagined Ascension scene, Jesus gives the apostles the Great Commission, yet leaves out baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In a scene that would otherwise have notable Eucharistic resonances, as the apostles break and share bread around a campfire while reciting the Our Father, Peter offhandedly tosses a chunk of bread over his shoulder onto the ground for Clavius. (No, it’s not actually the Eucharist, but still.)
The Virgin Mary is barely a character at all. And as Peter affirms his love for Jesus three times and receives his threefold commission, but with no hint of Peter’s guilt over the threefold denials, this moment loses its redemptive power.
For all its issues, Risen remains more interesting in some ways than a straightforward dramatization of the Gospel story like Son of God. It’s far from fully satisfying, but for devout viewers its strengths may outweigh the defects.
Caveat Spectator: Battlefield and crucifixion violence; fleeting images of rotting corpses; brief depictions of inebriation; references to prostitution. Teens and up.