Risen: A Brief Review

I took the eldest to see the film Risen tonight. I thought I'd write a few reflections.

This movie is a welcome breath of fresh air in the arena of Christian or "faith based" entertainment.  Sets, costuming, casting, screenplay, cinematography, music are all very well done. Not a Best Picture, by any stretch, but we're definitely competing in the same ballpark with Hollywood. From a filmmaking standpoint, my only sort of negative impression is that the pacing seemed to drag in a few places. I stifled a yawn or two a few times.

The story is very clever and well-conceived: Clavius, a Roman Tribune, is tasked with finding the body of a recently crucified Nazarene named Yeshua. The narrative proceeds from his vantage point as he tracks down the followers of this Jewish Rabbi and questions them. And, yes, he discovers the truth: This Yeshua has risen from the dead! The portrayal of the disciples is simply superb. Unlike most Bible epics, Risen gives a realistic picture of what this rag-tag band of Galilean fishermen must have looked like to the casual observer. They had no gravitas, no special skill set observable to the naked eye. No one would suspect that these few would very soon change the course of the entire world. The sheer improbability of their small movement conquering the world is very evident.

I enjoyed the film, and give it positive marks. And I agree with everything my friend Andrew Sandlin writes here.

Now, for a negative critique. One of the "sins" of Christian films is that they often "preach" too much. The films are not generally done "for art's sake," but for evangelism's sake. They pack in as much theology, conversion story, and "Christian-y" jargon as they can. I've been quite critical of this tendency in the past.

The problem with Risen, by contrast, is that it preaches too littleI'm not trying to be a perpetually unsatisfied Goldilocks here, but this is a real problem with this film. Jesus' disciples, understandably, are bewildered at the resurrection appearances. They don't know what to make of it, and frankly tell Clavius as much. That's not so much the problem (it's likely that was actually the case!); the problem in Risen is that by the time Jesus ascends into heaven, his disciples appear just as clueless. Jesus commands them to preach the "gospel" to all nations, and viewers may be forgiven for scratching their heads as to what, exactly, that is. Pardon the pun, but there is barely any flesh on it. There are some oblique references: Mary Magdalene talks about being "free." Others talk about "love." And "eternal life" is mentioned on a couple of occasions. They are clearly deeply moved by him. They revere him. They worship him. But there is little to no content to their beliefs about him. I just think it is all too easy for someone to leave this film wondering what, exactly, this resurrection is supposed to mean. And it's not like such content would be unduly intrusive or preachy. This is a movie about the resurrection of Jesus. I wouldn't think non-Christian viewers who go the length of buying a ticket would exactly be offended by being told what it means that Jesus is risen. As it happens, telling people what it means is sort of the exact job description of the very disciples being portrayed. It's a missed opportunity.

And I'm not asking for a systematic theology lesson here. Here are some words that never appear in Risen: "Repent." "Kingdom of God." "Forgiveness of sins."  Not only were these central to Jesus' teaching, they form the core content of Apostolic preaching. Maybe I'm too picky. But is it asking too much of a Christian film to mention, say, the forgiveness of sins? I don't think so.

While too little, what Risen does say is true, good, and beautiful so far as it goes. There are some genuinely moving and lovely scenes. On the whole I agree with the San Francisco Chronicle reviewer who wrote: "Whatever your religious affiliation, you will come away thinking that if all this did actually happen, it probably happened something like this."


Brian Mattson