When 2014 was billed as “The Year of the Bible” in Hollywood, many Christians were skeptical. And for good reason. The extrabiblical nonsense of 2014’s “Noah” and the blatant blasphemy of 2014’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” reflected both an ignorance of and disdain for Christian moviegoers.
And while 2014’s “God’s Not Dead” and “Heaven Is for Real” were more earnest attempt to reach their target audience, Christian movie buffs rightly recognized a still-evident gulf between Hollywood-quality moviemaking and the effort (and budget) put into faith films.
In 2016, however, “Risen” has bridged that gulf.
To put it simply: This is the movie Christians have been waiting for.
“Risen” tells the story of a Roman soldier named Clavius, who arrives in Jerusalem from his duties in the field on the day Jesus is crucified. Though he misses Christ’s death, as Pontius Pilate’s right-hand man, Clavius is charged three days later with investigating the rumors that this crucified Nazarene has risen from the dead.
Clavius then pursues his charge in an engaging and fascinating story that is part biblical epic, part detective story. Biblical characters are captured and interviewed, spies sent out, bribes paid, bodies exhumed, all in a desperate manhunt for a man once dead but now allegedly alive.
The film is superbly made – not with “Christian movie” production values, but with Hollywood-level skill – and is graced with fantastic performances from Joseph Fiennes as Clavius and Peter Firth as Pontius Pilate, as well as some excellent supporting characters in Mary Magdalene and the Apostle Peter.
Yet not only is the film entertaining, intriguing and well-made, but it is also faithful to the Scriptures and to the heart of the audience that believes in them.
The story itself, of course, is extrabiblical – meaning it imagines events that may have happened during the biblical narrative, but aren’t actually recorded in Scripture. Yet the story isn’t anti-biblical – it doesn’t contradict or undermine the Scriptures. The film does, admittedly, take some liberties with the timing of Jesus’ words, juxtaposing some of the events recorded in Acts with words Matthew suggests were spoken earlier, for example, but these liberties in no way change the meaning of the words spoken.
What really makes this movie sing, however, is not just its pro-Christian scenes, settings and messages, but its central theme, embodied by Clavius himself. As the soldier investigates the rumors, the lies and the cover-ups surrounding Jesus’ Resurrection, he repeatedly presses his interviewees to give him one thing; just one thing is all he’s after: the truth.
“Show me the Messiah, alive or dead,” he presses, “and show me those who follow Him.”
“No more lies!” Clavius insists. “What happened to the Nazarene’s body?”
Over and over, he offers freedom or threatens punishment to get to the truth. This isn’t a movie about what Christians believe happened or having faith in the unseen, but about one question that – though it isn’t in the film – the Scriptures do record Pontius Pilate famously asking: “What is truth?”
And in his quest to know what really happened, be Jesus alive or Jesus dead, Clavius discovers that the truth he finds … will change the world.
I could go on and on about this film. It’s riveting, intriguing, thought-provoking and unashamedly faithful to the gospel. It would be entertaining even to audiences that aren’t Christian. I think it would be particularly captivating to audiences who aren’t familiar with the Christian narrative.
I will conclude, however, with this summary: “Risen” isn’t necessarily my favorite or the best-made movie I’ve seen … but in seven years of reviewing films for WND, I have never, ever recommended a film more highly. Go, buy a ticket, and see this movie in theaters. Buy a ticket even if you don’t go see it. Send Hollywood the message: This is the kind of faith film we want you to make.
- “Risen,” rated PG-13, contains neither obscenity nor profanity.
- The movie has only minor sexuality. It depicts water pouring over a shirtless man as he prepares to bathe and two men who have a discussion in a Roman bath wearing only their ancient skivvies. Mary Magdalene is described as a “woman of the street” who can be recognized in the crowd by several soldiers who have paid for her services.
- The film does depict violence and warfare, including an elaborate battle in an early scene and the torture of crucifixion. Many are implied beaten, wounded or killed, and there’s plenty of dripping blood seen, but the movie doesn’t revel in gore, and the fatal wounds artfully (and intentionally) occur just outside the camera shot. There are, however, several brief shots of the decaying bodies that are exhumed in the investigation, which may be disturbing, particularly to young audiences.
- The film contains dozens of religious references, including a character playing the risen Christ and speaking words recorded in Scripture. The movie also includes discussions of Roman gods and depictions of prayer, both to pagan gods and to Yahweh. The film depicts characters with various opinions of and takes on both Judaism and Christianity, but there’s no question the movie endeavors to be faithful to the Bible and positive in its treatment of the Christian faith. My only criticism is one or two lines that make Christianity sound inherently pacifist, an implied dichotomy between “the sword” and Christian “love.” Perhaps it was merely an oversimplified attempt to contrast the Roman kingdom with the Kingdom of God, but if so, it missed some important theological nuance about the use of physical force.