MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: A-III
Reel Rating: (4 out of 5 reels):
Risen begins as a proto-detective story about a first-century Sherlock Holmes investigating the claims of Resurrection hours after its supposed happening. It’s a fascinating premise, so it’s a bit a jolt when the puzzle is solved less than an hour into its screen time. Yet it is even more surprising that the story becomes more interesting, not less. As a piece of craftsmanship, there are some flaws, but as a theological narrative and history mystery there is much to glean, as Bishop Barron has noted. Like the evidence itself, it lingers, even after acceptance.
There are three reasons in particular why I enjoyed Risen.
First, because of the “detective”. He is Roman tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), Pilate’s “enforcer” who squashes any Judean dissent with violent retribution. A weathered veteran of many wars, he freely admits in a moment of rare vulnerability that all he wants is “peace…a day without death.” When Pilate asks him to supervise the crucifixion of three criminals, he carries out the task with all the zeal of notarizing an envelope. Yet, only days later, there is a rumor that one of these men has risen from the dead. “We must have a body,” Pilate sneers. Clavius goes to great lengths to find it: interviewing disciples, visiting the site, and even digging up graves. The answer seems easy at first, but a keen eye and cool intellect leads him to into places that question the “official story” and reveal something extraordinary.
Secondly, the gritty realism. This is the first such film since Pasolini’s Gospel According St. Matthew that feels like an accurate depiction of first-century Palestine. The sparely populated landscape stands out immediately, setting a key visual tone. An early battle scene between Romans and Jewish zealots does not include thousands of CGI-created legions locked in heated combat but only a few dozen soldiers who easily overpower their poorly disciplined adversaries. This is true to a time when populations were, of course, substantially smaller. There is also far less stuff, and it has to be used and reused. And so the crucifixion is shown to take place on interchangeable planks, used over and over, the bodies dumped in a heap only yards away. Food is scare; poverty is common; everyone has a toothache. Even the best clothes are faded and ripped. The world is bloody, sweaty, and caked in dust. For most people, this was just another day.
Third, the film goes in an unexpected direction, despite viewers knowing The End. The disciples, interviewed by Clavius, have reactions that seem out of place. Mary Magdalen’s is uneven, first acting fearful then immersed in bliss. Bartholomew comes across even worse. It’s a reminder that the days immediately following the Resurrection was a strange time. The disciples know the tomb is empty and that Christ was risen, but struggle to fathom how it could be and what it could mean. They know something incredible has transpired, but they are dealing with natural and confused emotions. Oddly enough, it is Peter the denier who is the most solid—he is invigorated, excited for whatever is to come.
Halfway through the narrative, Risen takes a dramatic turn when Clavius unexpectedly discovers the truth. He writes back to Pilate, explaining his confusion: “I have seen two things which cannot reconcile: A man dead without question, and that same man alive again. I pursue Him, the Nazarene, to ferret the truth.”
It’s at this crucial juncture that Risen becomes more than just an Easter TV special. Director Kevin Reynolds understands that evidence does not automatically equal faith and gives Clavius (and the audience) time to ponder what this revelation means. The Roman tribune temporarily takes leave of his post to join the disciples, waiting for more answers.
When I was in second grade, I had a wonderful teacher named Sr. Regina who would lead us through my favorite prayer meditation. We would enter a special room in our heart where Jesus waited. Once there, he would listen to us, comfort us, and let us know that everything would be alright. There is a moment where Clavius gets this one-on-one opportunity to bear his soul before this man he helped killed.
“What are you afraid of,” the man asks.
“Being wrong,” Clavius admits, looking into his eyes.
Even the best of us can be worried, with all the evidence the created world can offer, that it’s just too good to be true. In the end, faith is choice, not a feeling or even a logical conclusion alone. The title of the film is present tense, reminding the viewer that while the event happened at particular time and place in the past, it is as real today as it was then; it is a challenge that presents a choice. What is our choice, and once chosen, what will we do?