“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  (Hebrews 11:1)


            Too often, Jesus films are low-budget, are done with something less than A-list actors, and carry that off-putting bathrobe-and-sandals-church-Christmas-pageant kind of awkward amateurism. Not so “Risen.”  The main character, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), is a Roman tribune, under the employ of the Governor, Pontius Pilate (an oozy Peter Firth), around 33 A.D., yes, that propitious time when the rabble-rouser Jesus of Nazareth was summarily executed in Jerusalem.

            Clavius had just finished skirmishing with some poorly-armed zealots in some ill-conceived rebellion.  It's not a challenge, really, dispatching untrained militia, no matter how zealous, but the constant unrest puts the Roman garrison in a state of unease.  They dare not go anywhere unaccompanied, and as unpopular occupation troops, they can be as brutal with the populace as they want, but they can't expect fawning cooperation.

            Pilate, for his part, is preoccupied with the upcoming visit of The Emperor (a plot device not historically likely), and the last thing he wants is for it to appear that things are out of control out here in the provinces.  So when Caiphas, the chief priest of the Jews, comes to him with some cockamamie fear about the Nazarene's followers stealing the body and claiming a resurrection, Pilate, attempting to placate, sets an armed guard at the tomb, dispatching Clavius himself to supervise the sealing of the heavy rock around it.

            That's why Clavius is really surprised to find that the sealed stone appears to have blown out of the cave, and the ropes not merely cut but frayed as if from some internal explosion coming from inside the tomb.  But how would that be possible?  Questioning the guards doesn't seem to help; they were sleeping off a drunk, or maybe they saw bright lights, even they're not sure, and they've obviously been paid (presumably by Caiaphas) to claim that they were overpowered, and the Nazarene's disciples stole the body.

            Pilate orders Clavius to find the body, which forces him to search in the Golgatha boneyard (which stinks every bit as much as expected), and other recent Jewish graves (the natives don't appreciate the disinterrments, either).  Clavius himself had seen the Nazarene dead on the cross, so he's not believing any resurrection story, not unless he sees for himself.

            Here's where the movie departs from not only the Gospel accounts, but, in my opinion, from good faith-based storytelling.  In my view, it would have been much more effective had Clavius somehow come to the faith by virtue of his investigation, where he talked to Mary Magdelene, and Nicodemus, and eventually the disciples themselves.

            But the moviemakers decide to make things so obvious to Clavius that he can hardly have any doubts:  he actually sees the Risen Jesus, both when He is forgiving Thomas for doubting, and showing him the holes in His hands and side, but also by the seashore, when He directs the hungry apostles to cast their net on the other side, after not catching anything all night, and suddenly the net is teeming with fish.   And then Clavius gets to “rescue” the disciples from pursuing Roman soldiers? Clavius even gets to “hang out” by himself with the Risen Jesus after everyone else is asleep, but merely says, “I can't think of any questions to ask you.”  Jesus asks him, “What are you afraid of?”

            Indeed, it would seem that the makers of this film were afraid that unless they made it overwhelmingly obvious, nobody could possibly believe the fantastic story of the resurrection of Jesus.  Ah, but that's precisely what believers have been doing ever since, and are called upon to do, even now.

Sure, it might be nice to see “proof.”  But then, the necessity for faith disappears.  It seems to me that a really good “faith-based” movie about Jesus missed a grand opportunity.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  The Jesus of this film is older, swarthier, and though gentle, not really all that charismatic.  (Cliff Curtis is a 47-year-old of New Zealand Maori descent).  How do you think of Jesus?

2)                  Do you think of Pontius Pilate actively attempting to suppress the resurrection story, or do you think of the Sandhedrin doing that, and then attempting to enlist Pilate's aid?

3)                  Do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association