Risen (2016)

There has been a lot of hype about the 2016 film Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes. Risen is the first major historical production from Affirm Films, the division of Sony that makes films aimed at evangelicals. Affirm Films has previously given us Courageous, Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and Soul Surfer, among others. Whatever one might want to think about these sorts of films, they have certainly been the most commercially successful Christian movies in the U.S. Risen was very successful relative to other evangelical films, grossing about $46 million against a $20 million budget.

So Risen is a story about the Resurrection of Jesus told from the perspective of a Roman military officer, Clavius (Fiennes). After the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, an agitated Pilate orders the Roman tribune Clavius to recover the body of Christ to forestall any rumors of His resurrection. Clavius is given three days to find Christ's body. This leads him to dig up graves, investigate witnesses who knew Christ, and turn up every piece of evidence in a manhunt that eventually leads him to the apostles - and to an encounter with the risen Christ Himself.

So, what worked about this film?

The plot was very original. It was an excellent example of a biblical movie that can take artistic license without contradicting the biblical narrative. Without very few exceptions, Risen stayed very very close to the details of the New Testament, at least when it was presenting biblical stories. But it was also full of a lot of original historical fiction centered on the figure of Clavius. The historical fiction and the biblical narrative were woven together very well. There was one part at the very end of the movie where Christ ascended into heaven in the presence of His apostles only, whereas the Bible says there were hundreds of people present, but that was not a huge deal. So the plot construction was very well put together.

Another great thing about this film was that it really focused on driving home what a true miracle the Resurrection was. We see the crucifixion briefly at the beginning of the film. But in Clavius' search for the corpse of Jesus, we come face to face with the horrid reality of bodily death. Stinking corpses dug up. Bloated, green bodies. Flies. Putrefaction. Soldiers vomiting while they upturn graves looking in vain for Christ. The film really gives us a a nitty-gritty look at what bodily decomposition entails - and by implication, what a miracle the Resurrection truly was. By the way, because of this fact, this film is not appropriate for young children, not unless you want them, seeing green bloated bodies with flies buzzing around them and Roman soldiers hurling.

Fiennes also played his role very well. His transformation from stoic Roman tribune to fervent believer was well-paced and performed admirably.

What didn't work?

Just technically speaking, it was one of those annoying movies where a lot of the dialogue is in whispers or low tones. You know what I mean? There's loud background music and this low talking and you have to turn the volume up way high to hear what the actors are saying most of the time. This irritated me severely.

I'm not sure what I think about the way they portrayed Jesus; the Ascension was cool, though. But I do know that the Apostles - especially Bartholomew - were presented as kind of holy idiots; buffoons, kind of like goofy, outlandish religious hippies. Well, the St. Peter character was a little more dignified, but overall the Apostles were a bit over the top. It goes back to the problem evangelical film makers have with depicting the virtue of joy, where because of the emotionalism inherent in evangelicalism, it is difficult for them not to conflate joy with a kind of enthusiastic silliness.

Plot wise, the film was much stronger in its first half, when the narrative centers on Clavius. In the first half of the film, we see Clavius trying to hunt down the body of Christ. This eventually brings him into contact with the Apostles, who are following the instructions of Jesus to meet Him in Galilee prior to the Ascension. Clavius abandons his post and joins the apostolic band, following them and the risen Lord north into Galilee. The first half of the film is thus more historical fiction, while in the second half we pretty much just have the biblical narrative leading up to the Ascension. This creates a dissonance, because in the first half Clavius is a real protagonist, but in the second half he kind of fades into the background as a mere observer of the biblical narrative. As a result, it feels like there is no protagonist by the end.

Was the film good? It was, but it started to drag at the end. I wish the director would have found a better way to incorporate Clavius in the latter part of the movie. The way the Apostles were portrayed was sort of lame, and I wish the dialogue would have been louder. But it wasn't terrible. It is probably worth a watch. I give it two out of three tiaras.