I’ll be frank. I don’t go out of my way to see many “Christian” films, despite being a committed Christian myself. I cringe whenever I see another caricature conversion on screen and the schmaltzy faith music that cues the “oh, I’m a Christian now” change. It just never feels genuine, and for something so personal to my very identity, I don’t like seeing something so very real for me being trivialized by a saxophone and a montage of some sinner crying in the dark.
There. I said it. Moving on.
So, I was hesitant. When I’d heard about “Risen,” I didn’t want to get my hopes up. Was it going to be another sacrilegious joke like “Noah?” Or maybe a cinematic masterpiece like the “The Passion of Christ” that ultimately made you feel just… really stuck in despair? Honestly, even though “Passion” had gorgeous cinematography and fantastic symbolism in its vicious re-telling of the Gospel, I don’t ever want to watch it again and weep another bucket of tears. Like I said, I didn’t want to get my hopes up. But I did anyways.
And I was not disappointed. Sure, I could gripe about the lackluster cinematography, the strangeness of a consistent British accent popping up for both Roman and Jew alike, the forgettable musical score, and the age discrepancy of the disciples. But it was the acting and the story perspective that really drew me in. Who knew that you could turn such a familiar narrative into a tenacious who-dunnit!?
“Risen” is told from the perspective of a Roman tribune tasked with finding the body of Christ after the Resurrection. Having just been playing using roman military/social ranks in the novel series I’m working on, I really enjoyed hearing the political interplay of how the Centurion at the cross fits into the Gospel, of how Pontius Pilate’s role as Prefect of Judea was on such slippery slopes after the embarrassment of “losing” the body of Christ, and the chief-and-subordinate relationship between Clavius (a tribune) and his newly assigned assistant, Lucias (likely an optio). What was truly curious was that no one was vilified despite the tendency of so many reiterations of the Gospel in films; everyone was portrayed as just doing their job (even if they did have unscrupulous motives). The Sadducees were trying to keep the peace with Rome, Clavius was trying to perform his duty in good conscience, and Pontius was just trying to keep his head.
My favorite part, however, was the disciples. I’ll never forget the scene from “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965) when the disciples see Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead and then in a frenzy began rushing about claiming that the “Messiah has come!” overlaid by the triumphant Hallelujah Chorus. How entirely jubilant! In “Risen” that same enthusiasm is nearly matched, but even more perfectly pronounced is the tentative joy and absolute bewilderment that the disciples must have lived with in the days after the crucifixion. Peter’s stubborn impatience is played to a T when he finally admits that “I don’t know, I don’t know!” Despite what Jesus had told them again and again, they still had no idea what was happening or what was coming.
Sure, there were some liberties taken in this retelling. Clavius had to be imposed on the plot a bit more to allow him to be a reliable narrator for the audience. There’s good and bad to that, to be honest. Yet I can really appreciate this film as a mode of evangelizing without being over the top. These days, so many Christian films come off with a white-knuckled aggression at preaching salvation that one feels like a reluctant child at dinner being told that “you’re not going to leave this table until you eat your Gospel! EAT IT. It’s good for you!”
Instead it hints, and suggests, and edges closer to the audience with gentle questions and kind eyes, “what are you afraid of?”
“Of being wrong.”
“Are you willing to stake your eternal soul on that?”