Every Lent and Easter brings up movie adaptations of Jesus’ life, and this year’s new installment is Risen, produced by Sony’s Affirm Films faith-based division. Recently I was able to attend a premiere screening of Risen at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in New York City. A roundtable discussion afterwards with the star, screenwriter, and producers revealed their motivations and goals for the film.
At first glance, Risen might seem like another installment of the Roman soldier conversion trope at the center of classic epics like Ben-Hur and The Robe. Coincidentally, the Coen Brothers’ new Hail, Caesar! is a timely spoof of their soundstage Biblical gravitas. Can a modern movie about a Roman tribune investigating the Resurrection be much different?
Fortunately, Risen is surprisingly more creative than the usual Holy Week movie. Its reverence for scriptural accuracy might be traditional, but its storytelling is decidedly modern. At the premiere, screenwriter Paul Aiello was emphatic that midcentury swords-and-sandals epics were not his inspiration. Instead, he wanted to offer a follow-up to The Passion of the Christ, imaging what happened after Jesus’ dramatic tomb exit. He and the producers – Mickey Lidell, Pete Shilamon, and Patrick Aiello – were dedicated to “21st century storytelling.” Affirm Films Senior Vice President Rich Peluso cited Les Miserable as the ideal faith-based film – one that offers examples of moral choices rather than an altar call.
Although the filmmakers were quick to note that they wanted to avoid the revisionism complaints against 2014’s Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, their tone has a similar focus on post-modern individuality. Joseph Fiennes’ Clavius doesn’t make grand speeches like Charlton Heston or swear his sword’s loyalty like Richard Burton. Instead, his adventures lead him on a path of personal introspection with an uncertain objective.
Risen doesn’t really delve into Clavius’ backstory. We never hear about his family or love interests, just a generic desire for professional success and peaceful retirement. This unique narrative kept me from really caring about him as a character, no matter how many sun-drenched shots lingered on his chiseled face. The tribune remains a blank slate Everyman, a stand in for the audience’s personal reactions.
Rather than an old-school epic, Risen is really more like a police procedural where the audience is one step ahead of the sleuth. Clavius is an intelligent, ambitious official who’s used to getting stuff done. With his boss breathing down his neck and a new intern to train, he throws himself into the case of the missing body. The investigation gets more and more complicated as he gathers clues about the empty tomb, pays informants, questions witnesses, and does some time-sensitive forensic work. When researching the role, Fiennes even consulted with a Maltese detective to learn interrogation techniques. Clavius’ dogged efforts lead to a surprising revelation that makes him question his training and entire worldview. Spoiler alert: Jesus isn’t dead.
Every Jesus movie has a requisite scene of zealot quashing, but Risen offers a surprisingly nuanced picture of Jerusalem’s Roman occupiers. The soldiers are dirty, tired men coping with everyday brutality in different ways. A centurion leaves the Crucifixion emotionally shattered, but the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pair guarding the tomb just want to get drunk and goof off. New recruit Lucius (Tom Felton) can’t yet stomach the stench of executed corpses. The Romans may be pagans but they still have spirituality. Several characters invoke their favorite gods, and a funeral pyre ceremony offers interesting contrast to Jesus’ Jewish burial.
At the Sheen Center screening, Fiennes remarked that Clavius’ violent life was the focus on his performance. “They way they fought was the way they thought.” He even spent a week in Rome learning gladiatorial fighting techniques from a group of “physical archaeologist” reenactors. A hillside skirmish scene at the beginning of the film offers an excellent demonstration of the testudo shield formation.
The loving community of Apostles is meant to be a foil to Clavius’ Roman pragmatism. For the most part they’re pretty generic, except for Stewart Scudamore’s delightfully irascible Peter and Stephen Hagan as Happy Youth Pastor Bartholomew. Cliff Curtis is a perfectly fine Jesus in his limited screen time, comforting his doubting disciples with almost parental tenderness. Sadly, female characters are one of Risen’s weak links. The Virgin Mary gets only one scene as grief scenery, and Mary Magdalene is a boring, spacey prostitute-turned-mystic. The wife of Pilate (Peter Firth) never even gets a mention, despite her role in Good Friday’s drama. Women are prominent agents in the Gospels’ Resurrection accounts, so it’s shame to see them shuttled to the sidelines.
Thanks to some manufactured political drama, Clavius ends up accompanying Yeshua’s followers to Galilee while he learns more about their teacher. The rag-tag group of hippies are still uncertain about the nature of the Resurrection or what will happen next; all they know is that they have a mission to share the Good News. Several desert landscape shots later, they have some final encounters with the risen Lord. Despite the producers’ emphasis on Biblical timelines, the days after Easter feel a little rushed.
Although Risen has a stronger beginning than conclusion, it’s refreshing to see a Jesus movie that isn’t a paint-by-numbers Passion play. Most of Good Friday’s events happen off screen. I thought this was a great choice that kept the plot moving instead of getting bogged down explaining Jesus’ origins and ministry. It may not be the ultimate Jesus movie, but Risen is an interesting addition to the genre that prompts viewers to ponder how divine mysteries can impact any life, even one that least expects them.
A cradle Catholic, Sarah Duggan grew up watching The 10 Commandments and Jesus of Nazareth every Lent of her childhood. She’s now a museum professional in the New York City area who loves exploring old churches with her historian husband. You can find her other Bible movie reviews on her blog, Catholic History Nerd.