Risen as Jesus Movie and Biblical Epic


What kind of a movie is Risen, which follows Joseph Fiennes’ centurion as he races to uncover what happened to the body of a recently-executed Jewish prophet and perceived political agitator, Jesus of Nazareth?

As many critics noted when it was released in the middle of February, Risen seems to belong to the growing crowd of “faith-based” films of recent years. Two years ago, Aren explored the crop of spring 2014 with an essay on religion in American cinema. That year gave us the Hollywood blockbuster/idiosyncratic antediluvian fantasy that was Noah, the angry, aggressively evangelistic God’s Not Dead, the safe and bland “true story” Heaven Is for Real, and Son of God, the Jesus-movie cut of the popular TV miniseries, The Bible. 2015 produced another, albeit less high-profile, crop, including the prayer-focused family drama War Room and the less-overt yet faith-tinged The 33. This spring brings us God’s Not Dead 2 and Miracles from Heaven, which is being marketed as the spiritual sequel to Heaven Is for Real helmed by the director of The 33.

With a trailer asking us to experience “the most important event in human history . . . through the eyes of a nonbeliever,” I assumed Risen would be another calculated addition to the “faith-based” marketplace, even perhaps a conversion vehicle intended as another salvo in the culture wars. While Risen is, on a certain level, devotional, it is not aggressively evangelistic, and this makes sense if we consider what kind of a film Risen is actually trying to be.  

To start, let’s set aside the nebulous category of “faith-based film,” which is often used to suggest a film’s evangelical Christian target audience, and, within that demographic, to define “wholesome,” politically-agreeably cinema. Like the term “Christian music,” the idea of “faith-based film” can be a useful shorthand, but it also ghettoizes art which explicitly engages with Christianity, and, within the Christian community, circumscribes certain movies for “us” from movies for “them.” And where does a new film like Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups fall—in or out? The film begins with voice-over reading Bunyan’s seventeenth-century Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, but while the film explores the inner life and matters of the spirit it has no explicitly Christian agenda. So, while useful on occasion, “faith-based” is not very helpful when we try to really get at how a film works.      

Unlike the polemical God’s Not Dead or the personal dramas that address issues of faith, such as Miracles from Heaven, Risen is a biblical epic, in the particular traditions of the Jesus movie and the often related pagan-convert story. Set in ancient Palestine, Risen tells a story about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as a story about an ancient pagan character (in this case, Joseph Fiennes’ Roman centurion, Clavius) coming to a new understanding of, or new relationship with, Jesus. It is not a story about how modern-day North Americans interpret or engage with stories about that person (even though the film itself is necessarily an interpretation and engagement with the person of Jesus). As other critics have already pointed out, in many ways Risen fits pretty comfortably alongside notable examples of the pagan-turned-believer genre, such as the 1953 biblical epic, The Robe, and its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954).

But Risen is also a fairly original entry in the genres of Jesus movie and pagan-convert epic. What is novel is how the film leads into its conventional subject matter: it’s essentially a whodunit. The body of Jesus of Nazareth has gone missing. Clavius, a battle-hardened Roman centurion, is ordered to find out who did it, and, if possible, to retrieve the body. Already, tensions run high in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, and the city is currently jam-packed with crowds for the Jewish Passover. What is more, Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) is worried about an upcoming visit from the Emperor. The last thing the Roman and Jewish leaders need is this so-called prophet’s ragtag supporters claiming that the man has come back to life. Clavius functions as the detective in this mystery, and Fiennes plays up that angle of his character by imbuing Clavius with a world-weary “seen-it-all”, noirish detachment. This is the kind of guy who gets the jobs done, and who is also the least likely to believe nonsense about someone coming back from the dead. The novel premise frames the familiar events from a different angle.

Choices in the production and the structure of the narrative also bring freshness to the telling. For instance, the film opens with a battle between Roman occupying troops and a group of Zealots, a sect of Jewish rebels/freedom fighters, which foregrounds the charged political climate of Palestine under Roman rule, and forges connections to modern geopolitics. The opening battle also recalls the action “decoration” used to spice up so many biblical epics of the classical Hollywood era, while it also sets up initial distance from the Jesus story. The first two acts of the film consistently choose to approach the Gospel events from the perspective of the Romans, and Clavius in particular. For example, early on, we witness the Crucifixion from the point of view of neither Jesus nor his disciples, but rather the Romans who are doing the torturing. A tired Clavius just wants to get the grisly mess over with, while minimizing commotion. When he orders two grunts to break the legs of those crucified, the grunts are only to happy to speed up the process of execution, reminding us how violence and torture were part-and-parcel of Roman occupation.

In Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), the sheer extremity of the violence defamiliarizes the events of the Passion. In Risen, the narrative approach creates the new perspective, but the film also utilizes subtler techniques of defamiliarization. For instance, Jesus is called “Yeshua” throughout the film (using the Hebrew pronunciation), which is a bit different for most English-speakers. The casting of Cliff Curtis as Yeshua also distances this particular film and its portrayal of Jesus from the long blond haired, blue-eyed Jesuses of earlier Hollywood pictures.  

Clavius finally tracks down the risen Yeshua in the final third of the film, and it is only after this turning point that the film becomes a more conventional, straightforward Jesus movie. There might be a few too many hugs and jovial laughs among the disciples, and the Ascension (which has always posed a problem for filmic representation) might be awkwardly portrayed, but it’s still a pretty good telling. The first two acts of the film, however, are much more solid, and it is the film’s novel approach that ultimately makes Risen a memorable Jesus movie.

However, the final, more-familiar third act is not a failure of execution or a fatal mistake. Rather, the ending indicates what kind of a Jesus movie Risen is. Some Jesus movies, such as Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), are meant to challenge the biblical accounts, or encourage a radically different perspective on the man. Risen is in essence conventional and ultimately traditional. It does not want to turn the Jesus story upside down or even significantly modify it from what is related in the Four Gospels of the Christian New Testament. Risen forces us into a different starting position, only to re-approach the same old story. This is less a judgement on the quality of the film, and more a statement about how it operates. Not every Jesus movie needs to challenge the traditions in order to be a good Jesus movie, or a good movie in general. We expect romantic comedies to end in marriage (or at least commitment), and we understand that action films excite through visual spectacle. Whether romantic comedies should end that way, or whether our appetite for action spectacle is healthy, or whether the Four Gospels are historically accurate are different concerns than the question of a film’s nature and merit. I think it’s unfair to blame a film for not trying to rewrite its source material. So, while this is ultimately a conservative work, that doesn’t make it without its merits.

However, conservative is not the same thing as Christian polemic or evangelistic film. In the end, Fiennes’ Clavius is changed, but he also doesn’t explicitly become a Christian. What the change he experiences amounts to is purposely left vague, probably to avoid the suggestion that this film has an explicit intention on the viewer’s beliefs. The film is more about the change its protagonist undergoes than trying to effect a change in its audience, which keeps it firmly within the realm of narrative art and not sermon or propaganda, forms in which the message and moving the audience trump all other concerns.

Since Risen is a biblical epic about the resurrection of Jesus (even if it takes a slightly different lead-in approach), it is inexplicable to me why the studio released the movie two months prior to the obviously best release date—Easter weekend. Risen came out around the beginning of Lent, but surely they couldn’t have expected the longevity of The Passion of the Christ, which was released around the same time in 2004? The awkward trailer and odd release date suggest, though, that even the suits ordering and marketing such movies don’t really know what they’re dealing with. They are obviously trying to tap into the “Passion dollars,” but, at the same time, they are feeding a legitimate hunger for films that directly address a still-large demographic in North America.

In the end, I’m happy that Risen amounts to one of the better recent works directly marketed to Christians. With its novel neo-noir approach, Risen makes for a memorably conceived, if still fairly conventional, addition to the Jesus movie tradition.

Risen (2016, USA)

Directed by Kevin Reynolds; written by Kevin Reynolds and Paul Aiello; starring Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis, and María Botto.