Note: This review contains some spoiler alerts.
Today, four of my friends from the International Fellowship at Charlotte Chapel (in Edinburgh) and I went to see the recently released movie Risen at the local cinema. Although there is always something strangely disconcerting to me about the idea of eating popcorn and sipping soda while watching a horrifying portrayal of Jesus’s death, I also found myself strangely warmed by the fact that Hollywood put out a family friendly, faith based movie for a change rather than their standard fare of drugs, sex, and alcohol.
Upon first entering the auditorium, I was immediately struck by the clientèle that found themselves occupying the plush seats. The movie theatre was about one third full (not bad for Edinburgh) and the majority of customers were middle age or above. I noticed that most were women, but a few men were also present. In part, this may have been because of the time since we went to see the movie at 11:15am. In Scotland, Good Friday is not necessarily a holiday and many people still need to work on this day. Sadly, we have a limited number of theatres in Edinburgh, only two of which were showing the film, and only one of which had a showing on Good Friday. Even despite the fact that the movie had a slot today, none of the other movie times were really well-suited to an audience as there were no screenings on Friday evening, Saturday, or Sunday except one at 11:30pm. To me, this points towards the unfortunate cultural disengagement with the Christian faith especially in the secular U.K. Whereas Canada and the U.S. have released several Christian films in recent years including showings of Son of God, the Dropbox, and War Room, Scotland has not hosted any of these movies. Additionally, Canada and the U.S. know that the best time to market an Easter film is during Holy Week itself, but it appears that in Scotland, other films are making enough money so therefore there is no need to show a Christian movie (which does not draw in many people) more than is absolutely necessary (which in this case is once per day at random hours). This was disappointing for my fellowship because originally 20 people had indicated an interest in the movie, but due to the time, only one quarter of us were able to attend. Nevertheless, I still give thanks that I live in a free country where people are entitled to practice their own religious traditions and that even though this movie was not given much of a chance to impact the masses, at least the U.K. still permitted a Christ-centered movie to be screened during the most holy season of the year.
Logistics aside, I found Risen to be quite a powerful portrayal of the Gospel message. The movie centers around a Roman Centurion, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) who witnesses the death of Jesus and then discovers Jesus’s true identity for himself over a period of several days after His resurrection. Unlike the Passion of the Christ (which I regard largely as “violence porn”), Risen centers more on the narrative story rather than on graphic details or gruesome violence. The narrative begins with Clavius walking into the house of a Jewish man, recounting his strange, emotional and moving tale, and then ends with the question “do you really believe this all happened?” The movie then gives its viewers the opportunity to decide for themselves what they will do with the compelling evidence of the resurrection, but the option is presented in a rather gentle way rather than a forced conviction or through emotional manipulation.
I particularly appreciated the emotional connection this movie fostered for its audience. This was shown in two distinct ways. Firstly, through the main character, Clavius, and secondly through the interviews that take place throughout the film. In the first instance, we can see the inner battle that Clavius faces and his adventure that leads him straight to Christ. Clavius is a highly influential man who truly wants nothing more than the best for himself and for society. He longs for a day with no war, no political upheaval, no revolts, no protests, and no death. He longs for a good job that will enable him to care for his family and that will provide him with the basic necessities (if not a few luxuries) in his life. Interestingly, although many would portray Clavius as originally an evil man because of his Roman identity and his involvement in the crucifixion, the movie portrays him more as someone we can sympathize with. All of us are like Clavius in a sense, especially before we truly get to know Christ. Most people in this world long for the same things Clavius is looking for. Almost all of us long for world peace, a cessation of violence, and the opportunity for unity – yet, we, like Clavius often look in the wrong places to find such freedom. In the movie, this point is best illustrated by Mary Magdalene (one of the most beloved and well known disciples of Christ) who blatantly informs Clavius that he will never receive what he is after because he is looking for the right things but with impure motives. Magdalene then speaks of how Christ set her free despite her troubled past and provides Clavius the opportunity to consider how he can also receive this turning point. Although it takes Clavius a while to reach his ultimate decision, we can see an inner wrestling taking place in his life throughout until finally he finds himself face to face with Jesus and must choose between continuing to live a comfortable life style or else accepting what he knows to be true.
During Clavius’s long journey to discovering Christ for himself, he conducts a series of interviews with those who claim they have seen Jesus after he was buried in the tomb. These eye witness accounts are first mocked, then regarded with curiosity, and finally listened to by Clavius. Although they add superfluous material and poetic license to what we find explicitly mentioned in the Scriptures, I appreciated how they add emotional depth and help develop the character’s lives a bit more. For example, all of us who have grown up in the church (or have attended a church for quite some time) are very familiar with the Easter story, yet we often read it from our own perspective. This film gives us the opportunity to step inside the life of Mary Magdalene, the eleven disciples (because Judas had already suicided by this point), and even Clavius. This, in itself, makes the movie highly worth the watch just because it adds such unique perspective and really makes the Gospel story come alive.
Nevertheless, while Risen has many admirable qualities, it is also important to acknowledge the controversy that has surrounded this movie in recent weeks. One of the reasons I was so keen to see Risen was because lately my Facebook newsfeed has been filled with messages from movie goers who seem to have nothing positive to say about the film. They resent the fact that it is either too violent, too scripturally inaccurate, or Anti-Semitic. Although some of the logic behind such outrageous claims may come from a good place and despite the fact that all customers are entitled to their own opinions, I did not find this to be the case at all in this movie.
Firstly, the crucifixion was a gruesome and terrifying event. Sadly it was a common place punishment in that era for criminals, political dissenters, and religious agitators, but what makes it even more devastating in relation to the Easter story is that the man who hung on the Cross was the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus was not just a mere mortal, but He was and is the only begotten son of the Father. We should feel moved with empathy and compassion watching Him suffer as He did, and yet we should also realize that no amount of physical pain we witness on the big screen while sitting in comfortable chairs and eating delicious snacks can ever come close to the purely devastating events of that first Good Friday.
Secondly, it is a well-known fact that Hollywood rarely gets the Biblical story right when they bring it to the big screens. In this particular case, I found that the plot line connected quite well to the Biblical narrative, though there were definitely many instances of speculation or additions, partly to make the story flow in a movie format (remember: they didn’t have t.v. or movies in 33AD!) and partly to make the story more accessible for everyone. This has its pluses and minuses. One advantage is that the movie portrayed the character of Jesus very well. Throughout the film, Jesus is portrayed as loving, meek, and gentle. Even when Thomas doubted, He responded in a compassionate and forgiving way, and even when Clavius acknowledged his role in Jesus’s death, Jesus responded with grace and empathy, openly giving Clavius a fresh start. During the duration of the movie, we see Jesus actively engaging with the emotional and spiritual needs of His followers and providing not only good moral teaching, but more importantly, salvation to them. However, the disadvantage with this film is that by focussing too much on the emotional aspects of the Easter resurrection story, the Gospel then is portrayed as loving everyone and doing good in the world. This does not necessarily mean that the entire movie is focussed solely on good works, but rather that it lacks spiritual depth and clarity on how one can attain this salvation. My only hope is that if Christians invite their unbelieving friends to watch this film with them, it may then provide a gateway for discussion and that through this dialogue, clarity can be provided.
Lastly, I did not feel Anti-Semitism was an overarching ideology in this film. The main focus was on Clavius, a Roman centurion, and the only “bad” Jewish man was the high priest who was worried about how Jesus would disrupt his delicate spiritual authority. Even though people often think that almost all renditions of the Easter story focus mostly on the Jews, it is important to note that we all are responsible for the death of Christ. We have all despised and forsaken Him at least once in our lives (and probably more), and Jesus died because of the sins of the whole world. As Clavius says in one particular scene, “I have never seen a man like Him before. He looked almost as if He wanted to die. As if He knew it was going to happen. As if He planned to give Himself up as a sacrifice.” Therefore, it is important that we all take corporate responsibility for the pain inflicted on Christ rather than using one particular ethnic group as our “scape goat.”
The movie Risen was well done in terms of its artistic and cinematic presentation which I feel is important because oftentimes Christian movies are poorly done or overly cheesy. This then gives the impression that Christian artists and actors are not as skilled as secular workers in the same field; and yet, as my friend pointed out today, “it’s such a shame because as Christians we actually know the Creator Himself – the very One who has enabled art in the first place.” Needless to say, I personally find that when a Christian movie is done exceedingly well it actually enhances our testimony and makes non-Christians more interested in the work we are producing.
Yet the most important thing about Risen is not in the way the film is delivered, but rather in the storyline itself. Risen is a story of redemption, love, and forgiveness. It is also a story about second chances and the ability to be accepted by Christ regardless of past failures and mistakes. This is a story many of us long for and that we all have the opportunity to be a part of. Whether you are a solid, Bible believing Christian, a C&E Christian, a seeker, or just someone who likes historical action movies, I think Risen will provide something inspiring and uplifting for you. I highly recommend this movie and encourage you to think about someone in your network who has never heard this story before and to share it with them as an evangelistic tool. No, it might not convert them and it probably won’t make any real lasting spiritual influence upon their life, but hopefully, it will at least give them an opportunity to see the Scriptures in a brand new way and maybe, just maybe, this is what our cultural truly needs all along.