A week or two ago, the youth of First UMC Shelbyville asked our youth director, Alden Procopio, about the movie “Risen.” Alden thought – correctly – that she ought to see the movie before recommending it, so she and Rev. Lanita Monroe went earlier in the week. They liked it so much that Lanita sent out an e-mail blast inviting all ages, not just the youth, to attend the 4:15 Sunday matinee.
So I joined the group today, walking from the church to the theater and back again. The short review, which I’ll expand on below, is that I really enjoyed it – I thought it walked a fine line between an innovative approach and reverence to the source material.
I get frustrated with some of the ham-fisted attempts to put faith on film. Not surprisingly, three of the four coming attractions before tonight’s movie were faith-based. One of them, a fictional story about a teacher suspended for using a Bible verse in her classroom, seemed like a perfect example of what I normally don’t like in this genre. The movie (judging only from the trailer, which can be inaccurate) is really black-and-white, portraying the chief opponent as a one-dimensional villain and the teacher and her supporters as a persecuted minority. Any non-Christian would find it laughable and unconvincing, but non-Christians wouldn’t go see it in the first place. The movie is aimed at Christians – but its primary purpose (again, judging from the trailer) seems to be reinforcing how great we are and how nasty and evil anyone who disagrees with us is. The question of how and when faith can be expressed in taxpayer-funded public schools is a complicated one, and not always a matter of black and white, heroes and villains. But a more-nuanced treatment probably wouldn’t sell group tickets to churches.
Sorry; excuse me for getting off on a rant there. I only bring it up to contrast it with “Risen.”
Now, to be fair, any Biblical epic is going to suffer from a little bit of the same preaching-to-the-choir effect I described above. Few non-Christians are going to be interested, so any claims of evangelistic value are going to be wildly overstated. But I think a well-done Bible movie at least has some value in terms of inspiration. It certainly served that purpose from a couple of our youth, who said during the post-movie discussion back at the church that the movie had helped them imagine the crucifixion story.
By way of confession, about 10 years ago I tried to write a novel which was not unlike “Risen” in intent – it was supposed to tell the story of what happened to the disciples in between the crucifixion and the resurrection. I still have the incomplete manuscript; I gave it up because I decided I didn’t have the Bible scholarship to do it justice, and my original excuse that it was going to be “more like a parable than Bible history” was just that, an excuse.
“Risen” brings the story to life in a way which I found creative and reverent.
The story is told through the eyes of Clavius, a Roman tribune, played by Joseph Fiennes. Pilate (Peter Firth) sends a war-weary Clavius, who seems to be Pilate’s protégé, to the crucifixion site to break the legs of the three convicts and hasten their deaths. (If you remember the Bible story, you know that Jesus was already dead by that point and was pierced in the side instead.) Then, the next day, when the Judaean religious authorities complain to Pilate, Clavius is sent out to put Pilate’s personal seal on the tomb and post a couple of guards there.
Minor quibble: It’s sort of a Hollywood cliché that in movies, ancient Romans speak with upper-class British accents. But when working-class Roman soldiers are given working-class British accents (not Cockney, but something like that), it just sticks out like a sore thumb.
On the next day, the tomb is discovered to be empty – and Pilate commands Clavius to investigate, and to locate Jesus’ body in order to refute the rumor that he has somehow been resurrected.
This leads to what seems like a first-century police procedural, as Clavius and his newly-assigned deputy, Lucius (Tom Felton), track down rumors, dig up newly-buried bodies and try to intimidate everyone.
Clavius keeps telling people that he’s after the truth, and that he’ll allow them to go free if they’ll give him the truth. Eventually, of course, Clavius comes face-to-face with a truth he did not expect.
From that point forward, the movie changes in tone a little bit, bending the rules to depict Clavius as being present (albeit in the background) for several Bible scenes involving Jesus and the disciples. As long as you accept this as a work of inspirational fiction, and don’t take it too seriously, I’m fine with that. After all, as previously admitted, I tried to do the same thing. Think of it as “Ben-Hur” for the 21st Century.
The filmmakers do get several little details right. Jesus actually looks (gasp!) Middle Eastern, rather than like that blankety-blank Warner Sallman painting. The crucifixion wounds are in Jesus’ wrists, rather than his palms. If you tried to crucify someone by putting nails through their palms, the nails would tear through the flesh. Only by nailing just above the wrist – which still would have been considered the hand by the gospel writers – do you have the proper bone structure to hold someone on the cross for several days (which is how long crucifixions normally took). Clavius gives the disciple Bartholomew an accurate description of how crucifixion actually kills a victim – by suffocation. The victim must keep pushing his body up to breathe, and eventually, after days of agony, he gives up, exhausted, and is strangled by his own weight.
Rev. Lanita, in talking about the movie to the youth, lamented that they fell into the common trap of portraying Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, when the gospels don’t refer to her as such. (The idea that she was a prostitute comes from someone in church history speculating that she was the same woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, even though the Bible does not give us any specific reason to make that connection.)
It all seemed to work, at least for me. Fiennes is absolutely great as Clavius. You can feel his weariness, but then he shifts it aside and becomes an intimidating interrogator, and he makes his conversion – which, by the conventions of this type of movie, has to be somewhat sudden – believable. He still seems like the same person. With a lesser actor, this movie could have easily descended into camp.
Firth and Felton are also great on the Roman side, while Stuart Scudamore (running a close second to Cumberbatch in the silly name rankings) is quite good as Simon Peter (IMDb lists him as “Peter,” but he seems to be referred to mainly as “Simon” by the other characters). Stephen Hagan is just a tiny bit too giddy as Bartholomew, but I’ll let it slide – especially since the more-common mistake in Bible epics is to be universally-gloomy. This movie actually had a few moments of welcome and appropriate humor, such as one where one of the Romans makes a disparaging remark about the Jewish high priests just as we, the audience, see them approaching him from behind. There’s also a scene between Simon and Clavius late in the movie which incorporates some funny byplay.
I just really found the movie inspirational. I doubt many people who aren’t already believers will be converted by it, because I doubt they’ll go see it in the first place. But we probably shouldn’t expect movies to proselytize anyway. I think this is fine as a creative expression of faith, one which someone like me (and the teens from church) can simply enjoy on its own terms.
I highly recommend it.