Risen starring Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, Luther) is the latest in a growing number of faith-based films. The story is loosely based on the mention of a Roman centurion who after Jesus’ terrible crucifixion exclaimed, “Surely this man was the son of God!” (Matthew 27:54) Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman tribune, who after investigating the claims of Jesus’ resurrection becomes a believer himself. (Sorry for the spoiler, but you knew it was coming.)
Let’s start with the positive aspects of Risen. While the plot wasn’t gripping, Joseph Fiennes did a good job as Clavius, especially in those opening battle scenes to help us establish that Clavius was a tough soldier. It was interesting to see Fiennes transition from the roles of Shakespeare to Luther to Clavius, and he certainly bulked up for this film. As a fan of Fiennes and his brother, Ralph, I primarily wanted to see Risen because I like Joseph Fiennes. I was not disappointed as the movie contained plenty of Fiennes goodness and I didn’t have to put up with him kissing other women.
The biblically accurate scenes, such as the depiction of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the disciples along the Sea of Galilee found in John 21, were good. Even though there is no mention of a Roman centurion tagging along on their fishing trip, I enjoyed seeing the disciples once again receive fishing advice from a stranger onshore who they later recognize as Jesus.
The costumes, sets, and other imagery seemed very realistic…or at least better than the cheap Roman soldier outfits we use at church during Holy Week. I found myself interested in the setting, the rooms, the outfits, and even interested in the architecture of the period. This, to me, was a highlight of the film.
Finally, of course, I appreciated that it was none other than Tom Felton, who portrayed Draco Malfoy in several of the Harry Potter films, who was Clavius’ attendant. Harry Potter fans might find this especially amusing since Fiennes’ brother, Ralph, is Lord Voldemort in the same franchise. Unfortunately, Felton can’t seem to catch a break because he still played a villain.
My biggest complaint about Risen is the departure from biblical narrative. While some of this is necessary in reimagining a story, I believe Risen took it too far. I started to squirm in my seat when Clavius discovered Jesus sitting with His disciples and Mary Magdalene in the Upper Room. My discomfort grew after Clavius followed and befriended the 11 disciples (Judas not among them, obviously). But when Clauvius was part of Jesus’ reunion with His disciples in Galilee, my stomach did flips and I nearly walked out when Clavius and Jesus had a heart-to-heart in the middle of the night. While all these things might have happened, there is no biblical evidence to support this whatsoever. Since I attended the movie with my youth group, I felt the need to lean over to the sixth grader sitting next to me to inform her of the parts that weren’t actually in the Bible.
Also in the realm of scriptural inaccuracies in Risen is one of my pet peeves—the incorrect portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. In fact, Scripture says Jesus drove seven demons out of Mary (Mark 16:9, Luke 8:2). Could she have displayed promiscuous behavior? Possibly. However, there is no evidence in the Bible this was the case. Risen suggests that Mary did business with half of the Roman army before her life-changing encounter with Jesus.
While Clavius was a character with dimension, everyone else is a caricature of a goofy disciple, born-again radical, or a fool more concerned with power than truth. While this makes for great comedy relief, high drama, and inspiration, it doesn’t make an award-winning (or even interesting) film. Even though these characters exist to move the plot forward, they do so at a terribly slow pace. In fact, when my sixth grade friend dumped her cup of ice on her lap, I was just about to doze off. It was that boring.
Most of all, I was disappointed in the potential this movie had. Instead of producing a mediocre tale about Jesus’ resurrection with made-up, feel good stories, it could have told a greater, more realistic story about the centurion, perhaps how his new belief caused great distress in his position, possibly including persecution in the early church. Understandably, there parallels to Clavius’ search and a believer’s own search for truth and perhaps this is what the movie was trying to portray. But it just lost me.
Risen starts out strong and loses steam as it continues. While there are some notable scenes, the last half of the movie drags on and on. Joseph Fiennes provided great acting, but it wasn’t enough to keep my attention. It was an interesting depiction of the Roman centurion who believed, but so many artistic liberties were taken I fear people will confuse what is in the Bible and what is not.