Just another Bible movie?: Review of Risen (2016)

Review by Jamie Roberts 


When it comes to translating a Christian message into a mainstream form of media like cinema, there is always a real struggle. Either it swings far too much towards a secular market and the end product becomes offensive to most Christians, or it goes the other way and becomes obtuse and too preachy to anyone outside of the faith. There have been some great efforts over the years to close that divide, but Risen might be the best attempt in a very long time.

The concept is strong and offers us a glance into the ending chapters of the gospel through an entirely different and historical viewpoint. Rather than strictly following the story of Jesus and his disciples, Risen offers a rare look on the other side of the fence. It is refreshing to see what is an incredibly familiar story portrayed through the lens of the opposing side of the story, the Roman Empire.

Clavius is our cynical protagonist, a Roman tribune serving Pontius Pilate and a man with little love for the people of Judea and their religious squabbles. The story is viewed through his eyes as he investigates the alleged theft of the body of Christ, and attempts to stop a Jewish uprising before it is given a chance to begin. The story follows a more investigatory style, almost coming across as a kind of CSI: Judea as the Romans march about kicking down doors, holding interviews and wrestling information from informants.  Joseph Fiennes plays this part well, somehow managing to pull off a perfectly stern roman officer who just wants to get his job done and move on, while still being relatable and giving us a decent character arc.

It’s in the following of this concept that the movie is at its strongest, looking and feeling more like Gladiator thanThe Passion of the Christ: it is beautifully shot and presented. There’s a sense of authenticity as we follow the investigation, through the pressures of the Jewish ruling council on Pilate to the sheer determination that we have come to expect from the followers of Jesus at that time. While the historical accuracy can be a bit patchy at times, there is a certain amount of artistic license that can be allowed for a period of history where the records themselves leave quite a few gaps. It was refreshing for me that there wasn’t anything too offensive or out of place, at no point did I feel like the script was taking any real liberties with Scripture or history.

At least until we reach the second half of the movie.

There is a pivotal movement about half way through where Risen hits its peak, and it is incredibly satisfying. Unfortunately, what follows is almost an entirely different kind of film. We start to walk into more common tropes of Christian cinema, and far more liberties are taken here that at some points left me feeling a little bit uncomfortable and confused. While I would love to talk about that more, it’s something best left for the viewing experience.

Even at this point however, Risen isn’t necessarily bad. It still holds to strong characters and I would especially applaud their portrayal of Jesus, giving us a glimpse of a much more human and personable messiah than we have seen in previous films. There is a real sense that this is more than just a strong teacher and man of God, but also someone who has a real care for people and his friends.

There’s also a lot of fan service for those familiar with scripture, making small nods to certain characters and situations. It’s really great to see the disciples interacting together and, much like with the portrayal of Jesus, in a more relatable way that grounds them and avoids the stigma of portraying them as overly holy. Some might disagree with me on this, but I think in the end it comes down to personal taste. There are however one or two moments where they can come across as a little over-the-top and can border on being comedic relief.

The plot then somewhat meanders on towards its conclusion, giving us a greater glimpse into the lives of the disciples that was only hinted at in the first and second acts. Some might find that it starts to come off as overly preachy in its final twenty minutes, and that is certainly how I found it. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t remain enjoyable until the end credits roll, only that the sudden shift in the theme that built the movie up can be quite jarring.

In the end, by killing off it’s most intriguing concept and plot point by the half-way point, Risen sadly falls short of being a great movie and relies too heavily on typical tropes of Christian cinema. The story is by far at it’s strongest when it remains cynical, impartial and in the slow and deliberate teasing out of the ultimate revelation of Christ’s resurrection. Had it stayed true to that theme and held out just a bit longer, the end result could have been much more satisfying and rewarding for both sides of the audience. However, Risen is still an incredible leap in the right direction and a good watch despite its flaws. It shows that in the right hands, a mainstream biblical movie could definitely work without all of the compromise that we have come to expect. I would still heartily recommend watching it yourself and making those judgements for yourself.


Risen is released in the UK on 18th March. For Christian resources on the film, see http://risen.damarismedia.com/.

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