Director: Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Joseph Fiennes
Studio: Sony Pictures
Rated: PG-13 (For Biblical violence including some disturbing images)
While Christian movies may have reached a point where they are profitable enough to release on an annual basis, they are largely not in a place where they are entertaining. I believe this is the case because most Christian films fail as actual movies. They aren't about characters, plot structure, or emotions, they are about teaching and learning lessons. Lessons that people would go to church to hear if they wanted to hear them. “Risen” stands out tremendously in this regard as it not only tells a compelling story, it has an interesting character arc to follow. Yes, there is a spiritual lesson at the end of the day, but this time it is being told organically through the screenplay. This is not a pastor's sermon; this is entertainment.
It follows a Roman soldier named Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), who early in the film is summoned by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth). Pilate sends the soldiers to the hills where a self-proclaimed messiah is being crucified, as he needs to get verification of the man's death and burial. While the man being crucified had done nothing wrong, his words have offended the priests who are in power, and now the city has a vested interest in dispelling rumors of a ‘son of God' who will rise from the dead in three days' time. This is as important an opening for a Christian movie I can think of because the film has been going on for at least fifteen minutes and we have not met one Christian. We have not seen any believers, we have not met any followers, and no miracles have taken place as far as we can see.
We are witnessing this very Christian event through the eyes of unbelievers and skeptics; men who have no interest in changing their ideals nor do they see any need to. They are in power, want to keep that power, and this so-called ‘false prophet' has enough sway with the public to challenge that power. This becomes more apparent when the body disappears after the three days are up. Unless a body can be produced to the crowds, this rumor that a dead man has risen from the grave might suddenly seem very possible, and so it is up to Clavius to hunt down the man's followers and produce a body, dispelling once and for all that he is merely a man, not the ‘son of God.' For the most of the film, this plays out more like a tense mystery.
Clavius may not be a believer, but unlike most Christian films he is not a dumb man. He knows how to track people. He knows how to interrogate them. If he lets someone go free, it is because that person is of more use to him walking around outside then they would be locked away in a dungeon being tortured (and make no mistake: These men are masters when it comes to torture). He is a proud man who has been sent to do a job, and is finding that job to be increasingly difficult. He knows what he saw. All the events afterwards cannot have possibly happened. If the man did not rise from the dead though, then where is his body? If his followers had doubts about his ability to come back to life, why did they follow him?
At one point Pilate asks him “did you find him special in any way?” Clavius 's response is a passive aggressive “I found him to be dead.” That this soldier comes to see the truth is a certainty in a movie like this. Yet the difference here is that this is an actual journey, with real conflict and doubts. Even when he sees with his own eyes the proof he needs to know this man named Jesus is who he claims, he stays awake at night trying to reason with himself the logic of the proof he' seen (sort of like how the boy from “The Polar Express” struggled with faith in the face of truth). This is a battle I believe most viewers can sympathize with. Fiennes extremely sympathetic portrayal of this mass murder is all the more commendable, as he plays someone we are supposed to love (morally speaking) but find very hard to.
He strikes the perfect balance between a man who is doing a job and a man who is questioning everything he has grown up believing. There will be some real life Christians who object to the movie because this is a fictional story of the resurrection of Jesus. Yes, there is a good possibly none of this ever happened. It is a theoretical scenario; not a historical one. It is a good theoretical scenario though. If you are a believer you may see a bit of your own struggles in the form of the man you see on screen. If you do not believe the story of Jesus is real, this is still a good suspense story with a strong central character. “Risen” works on multiple levels. If the Christian genre is to have more critical success in the future, they should take note of this movie, and see that you can have your message and be entertaining at the same time.
Parents, there is some blood and gore involving crucifiction (as you probably guessed). Recommended for ages 13 and up.