Movie Review: “Risen” Falls Short

About the Film:

risenFor Catholics who go to the movies, there are generally three types of movies that exist: A film told from an overtly Christian viewpoint with a good message and no negative elements (Men of Boystown comes to mind), a film that is purely secular and not really uplifting, yet which presents no danger to the viewer (many of the recent superhero movies fit this bill), and movies which, if seen, cause a Catholic to compromise his morals (basically everything else).

Risen showed promise of being of the first type. Billed as the unofficial sequel to 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, Risen is told from an intriguing voice – that of a Roman prefect named Clavius, played by Joseph Fiennes. The movie follows Clavius and his aide Lucius (Tom Felton) as, under immense pressure from Pontius Pilate, they first seal the tomb of Our Lord, then embark on a search for His “body” after Caiaphas masterfully convinces Pilate that the empty tomb is a Roman problem.

The movie is aesthetically well done, and makes use of its historically interesting standpoint with believability and restraint. Judaea at the time is portrayed as a backwater outpost for Pontius Pilate and Clavius, who want nothing more than to keep peace in the region for the Emporer’s visit in 10 days’ time. The first meeting in the movie between the two shows Clavius still bloody from putting down a Jewish rebellion (interestingly, led by Barabbas), and the halls of Pontius Pilate still strewn with litter from the crowds which came to push for Our Lord’s crucifixion. Pontius Pilate is played to slimy perfection by Peter Firth, who depicts him as nothing more than a politician whose only interest is his own reputation and advancement.

The depiction of Golgotha is different than has been shown in other films, probably closer to the reality of what it was. It is shown not as a grandiose mountain vista overlooking the city, but a fly-infested mound outside the gates for the lowest of the enlisted soldiers to carry out their tortuous death penalty. In a sense, this drives home even more the abject humiliation of Our Lord – to be put to death at such a place. Though unnamed, a soldier fitting the description of St. Longinus is shown, and in agreement with tradition, he exclaims to Clavius his belief of the innocence of Our Lord.

What was strikingly unnerving about the depiction of the death of Our Lord, however, was the depiction of the Blessed Mother. Instead of suffering with dignity and stoicism, she is shown nearly on the edge of hysteria and collapse. In fact, it is in deference to her that Clavius commands a subordinate of Longinus’ to use his spear on the Body of Our Lord instead of breaking His legs. This is one of a few uses of poetic license throughout the film that, while not wrong in and of themselves, definitely push back at our Catholic senses.

Clavius, after further consultation with Pilate, seals the tomb himself, and places guards there in what he is sure is a fool’s errand. When news breaks throughout the town that the tomb is empty the next morning, it is Clavius and Lucius who are tasked with bringing the Body of Our Lord to Pilate so he can quell any “insurrection”. What follows for a good portion of the movie is akin to a detective story.

He finds out that Our Lord has appeared to Mary Magdalene, and with the help of his men who are familiar with her via her past life, finds her – curiously – in a tavern. While nothing remotely salacious is shown in the tavern or said (one soldier refers to her as a “woman of the street”) it is a strange choice that she is found there in the movie, instead of with other disciples of Our Lord.

Clavius interrogates her, and is confused by her lack of clear answers. Like all the others in the movie who have come into contact with Our Lord after his Resurrection, she is almost in a state of permanent shock. She is still coming to terms with realizing that Our Lord’s prophecy of His own Resurrection is, in fact, true.

Shown shortly after, the interrogation of Bartholomew is a highlight of the movie. At first glance, he is played almost as a fool, but then the viewer realizes Bartholomew is literally giddy with excitement, joy, and happy confusion over the events of the last few days. This interview makes an impact on Clavius, and he intends to follow this lead as far as it can take him, but we see a subtle change in his demeanor – he is now more curious than determined.

We will halt short of giving a blow-by-blow account of the rest of the film, at the risk of spoiling any enjoyment of our readers. The preceding parts were mostly historically predictable, but the rest of the movie dives into quite a bit of conjecture. The rest of the movie also features more of Our Lord in His risen state, and the disciples around him. And, as is predictable, the depiction of Our Lord was a bit of a disappointment.

Of course, it would be impossible to depict Our Lord in order to make every viewer happy – we all have our own notions of how He must have looked exactly, and spoken. But this depiction, while probably historically accurate in appearance, lacked in seriousness. His characterization was more of a happy uncle or pastor with his arms around his congregation’s shoulders, less of the Son of God. Nothing blasphemous, to be sure, but His portrayal certainly fell way short of the mark.

Other parts were off-message from the Sacred Scriptures and Tradition, as we have already touched on when discussing the treatment of Our Lady at the Crucifixion. Later on, we see the interaction between Thomas and Our Lord as a shell of what the Gospels tell us happened. The penultimate scene was a bit of a disappointment as well, Our Lord’s Ascension – though probably owing more to budgetary concerns than carelessness.

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That is not to say that the movie was completely bereft of thoughtfulness. The Holy Shroud makes an appearance, and the interactions between Pilate and the high priests show how manipulative and cunning they were in the hatred of Our Lord – and how spineless Pilate was in the face of Truth.

Also, in an interaction with Our Lord, Clavius exclaims that he still doesn’t know what to believe. Our Lord tells him “You have seen all this and do not believe. Imagine the task ahead of them [the disciples]. They need to tell people who have not seen any of this.”

Later that evening, Clavius finds himself again alone with Our Lord. After a moment or two, Clavius breaks the silence with, “I don’t know what to ask You.” One could imagine any number of us, confronted with this situation, to act in precisely the same confused, overwhelmed manner.


The Review:

Risen is technically a good movie, stylistically done well, and shot with architectural and historical believability. There are no efforts at “over-doing” special effects, and as a result, one is allowed to sink into the story without any jarring moments. The acting is solid all around, with Bartholomew and Simon Peter stealing the scenes they are in.
As far as objectionable content, there is no profanity, and nothing of an adult nature – only the aforementioned reference to Mary Magdalene, which would likely fly over the head of anyone who would otherwise be scandalized by it. There is plenty of violence, as could be expected from a movie that deals with Romans quelling insurrections and the Passion and Death of Our Lord, but not nearly to the level of The Passion of the Christ.

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In terms of its message and content, it is not a bad film, but one must realize that it was produced from a standpoint that attempted to appeal to all Christians – Catholics and Evangelicals alike. There were lines in the movie most likely placed for the purpose of appealing to Catholics, while the remainder was definitely Protestant in tenor. The production company, Affirm Films, is a subsidiary of Sony Pictures, which markets films that “are mainly aimed at Evangelical Christians.”

We hesitate to say that this is an “alternate history” movie, since obviously the main theme is fact. But the premise of the story being told from the perspective of Clavius lends to the movie the same kind of interest and curiosity that good alternate history movies and books provide.

 


Our Final Word:

While as a whole it falls short of our enthusiastic recommendation, it’s still an enjoyable movie. But save your money on the theater ticket prices, and wait for it to be available for rental.

Rating: PG-13 (for Biblical violence including some disturbing images)
Genre: Drama,Action & Adventure
Directed By: Kevin Reynolds
Written By: Kevin Reynolds,Paul Aiello
In Theaters: Feb 19, 2016 Wide
Runtime: 1 hr. 47 min.

Sony Pictures-Official Site

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