MRBlog | Two Reviews of Risen (2016)

Religious Studies professors at my institution (Rhodes College) were recently offered tickets to an advanced screening of Risen (Sony 2016). My colleague and I wrote the following two reviews afterward. Warning: there are many spoilers!

Risen Christ and soldiers. Marble, ca. 1572.
Photo: Ricardo André Frantz via Wikimedia Commons

The Empire Strikes Back: A Review of Risen
By Sarah E. Rollens

When I received the offer for free tickets to an advanced screening of Risen, I have to admit that my first thought was, “Oh no, not another Jesus movie.” But curiosity won out, especially because I am always intrigued when another cinematic version of Jesus’ life appears. Is it going to stick to a rigid, canonical script, as in The Gospel of John? Is it going to challenge long-held ideas about Jesus’ morality, as in The Last Temptation of Christ? And most importantly, who is going to play Jesus? (And how white is he going to be?)

Risen presents itself as “the epic Biblical story of the Resurrection, as told through the eyes of a non-believer.” The plot is framed as a whodunit with political implications: “Clavius, a powerful Roman Military Tribune, and his aide Lucius, are tasked with solving the mystery of what happened to Jesus in the weeks following the crucifixion, in order to disprove the rumors of a risen Messiah and prevent an uprising in Jerusalem.” The story thus focuses mostly on Clavius, and in fact, Jesus (referred to as “the Nazarene” and “Yeshua”, although Caiphas calls him “the heretic” at one point) is rather peripheral.

The film is certainly entertaining. Joseph Fiennes is a great choice for the skeptical and impatient Clavius. Since I am no expert in cinematic techniques, the remainder of my remarks will concern how well this film measures up to the historical and literary evidence that we have. We enter the story at the end of Yeshua’s life at the crucifixion scene, which primarily reflects the Gospel of Luke’s account. From this point on, Yeshua is mostly absent from the scene as characters scramble to find his body to prove that he is actually dead and thus quell a revolt from his followers. In comparison to other Jesus movies, what’s unique about this is the focus on the Roman reaction to the missing body and the suggestion that its absence might ignite socio-political tensions in Jerusalem.

In keeping with canonical gospels authors’ (especially Luke’s) efforts to exonerate the Romans, here they are also largely let off the hook for responsibility in Yeshua’s death. Early in the film, we see Pilate reluctantly explaining that he “had to crucify” Yeshua to keep order in Jerusalem. That is a nice sentiment, one that certainly humanizes the character, but anyone familiar with Roman history knows that the Romans were hardly reluctant to crucify dissidents. Consider the 2,000 people purported to have been crucified by Varus in the wake of Herod the Great’s death, or the 6,000 slaves crucified after the defeat of Spartacus’ revolt. Thus, the Romans’ obsession to find the body of a single person whom they have crucified strikes me as a stretch. Should a revolt have broken out by those convinced he was an immortal messiah, the Romans could have—and would have—easily put it down.

Moreover, even though the film puts a unique spin on the story that takes it out of the realm of canonical accounts, it nevertheless reinforces the utter uniqueness of the story. Nearly everyone in this version—Romans, Jewish leaders, the disciples—become obsessed with the empty tomb. Yet those who study the ancient world know that there is hardly anything unique about such stories; violent deaths of popular heroes accompanied by mysterious circumstances afterward were routine. This is precisely what everyone would expect in the account of a folk hero’s death. Even ancient peoples were dealing with the intrigue involved in these stories. The Gospel of Peter, for instance, records a version of the empty tomb story in which a guard is specifically stationed outside the tomb so as to avoid “his disciples steal[ing] him, and the people accept[ing] that he is risen from the death.” This implies that some early Christian authors were at least aware of the charge that the empty tomb had been staged and that they were trying to confront such accusations preemptively in their stories. Thus, what Risen presents as a great mystery after Jesus’ death is certainly not a new issue.

Most films that claim some semblance of historical fiction strive for the most historically accurate representations of the figures involved, and Risen largely succeeds, with two major exceptions. The representation of the Jewish leaders, while not as anti-Semitic as The Passion of the Christ, nevertheless essentially takes over the stereotypical, polemic representations from the canonical gospels. The Romans refer to them as “fanatics,” and Pilate describes Caiaphas as heading a “his pack of raving Jews.” Caiaphas is also accused of having his “monopoly on piety” threatened by Yeshua. Even more, the Jewish leaders are explicitly portrayed as hypocritically impious as they enter the tomb on the Sabbath to confirm that Yeshua’s body is indeed inside before it is re-sealed by the Romans. Thus, while Risen creatively envisions new possibilities when it comes to Roman figures’ reactions to Jesus’ death, it mainly sticks to rather clichéd (and ahistorical) portraits of Jewish leaders.

The other unfortunate characterization in Risen is Mary Magdalene, whose depiction enjoys almost no rehabilitation from skewed portraits promoted by many early church fathers. Here she is a “woman of the street,” and when Clavius is seeking someone who can positively identify her, all the soldiers in the barracks seem sheepishly to “know” her. Her prominence in the life of Jesus, which all canonical gospels seem to affirm in subtle ways, is briefly acknowledged when the disciples finally believe her that the risen Yeshua informed her that he would meet them all in Galilee. Even so, once they accept her testimony, they head off to meet him sans Mary.

As one might expect, Risen is not without anachronisms. For instance, the linen cloth that covers Jesus’ corpse is shown with a ghostly image of his face (explained by the Romans to be simply the result of “sweat and herbs”); most scholars, however, agree that the famous Shroud of Turin, to which this is no doubt an allusion, dates to a much later period. In addition, one character uses the term “martyr” in a manner that reflects later usage—while the concept of martyrdom existed before Jesus, later Christians gave the term “martyr” the distinct meaning that reflects how it is still used today. Finally, for anyone familiar with the topography of Roman Palestine, some of the landscape is…not quite right. Risen’s Sea of Galilee, for instance, is oceanic in scope, in comparison to its rather modest size in reality.

The Sea of Galilee.
Photo: Datafox via Wikimedia Commons

The representation of Yeshua’s disciples was perhaps the most awkward part of this film for me. The disciples come off, to be blunt, as almost comical buffoons. They appear deliriously happy when in the presence of the risen Yeshua and show little fear when the Romans are pursuing them to find out if they have stolen his body. “Our only weapon is love!” proclaims Bartholomew joyously when being interrogated by the Romans. When we see Yeshua later in an upper room surrounded by his disciples, the latter are practically giddy as Yeshua shows off his crucifixion scars. Their borderline-silly depiction was almost distracting at times, but compelling performances by Joseph Fiennes (Clavius), Peter Firth (Pilate), and Tom Felton (Lucius), among others, managed to keep the plot relatively sober.

Does Clavius ultimately “convert” on the basis of seeing the risen Yeshua? It depends on how one understands conversion. On one hand, Peter asks him in one of the final scenes if he will join them in “fish[ing]” (for more believers, as in Mark 1:17). Clavius declines and appears to continue on his way alone. On the other hand, when asked at the end if he believes, he acknowledges, at the very least, “I believe I can never be the same.”

Sarah Rollens, Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Rhodes College, Memphis, TN

The Millennial Jesus? A Response to Risen
By Daniel Ullucci

A lot can be said about Risen that has been said about Jesus movies from the beginning. Yes, it contains silly anachronisms that make historians cringe. Yes, it contains a whole bunch of stuff that is not in the Bible. Yes, it contains a lot that is historically improbable and even absurd. Yes, it reproduces the rabid anti-Judaism present in the New Testament itself by portraying the Jewish leaders as a bunch of angry, withered, Machiavellianists out to protect their own corrupt power at the cost of human happiness and truth. Yes, the Romans are alternately corpulent or ripped, have internalized some first century notion of the ‘white man’s burden,’ and don’t quite believe in their gods anymore. These things are not without significance. Turning history into a house of mirrors where we project more and more convoluted images of ourselves ensures that we both never learn from history and never see ourselves clearly.

That said, realia are significant too. The greatest movies do teach and thus alter the course of history, but this is a rare breed. A movie based on the historical Jesus, that is, one based on the mountainous scholarship on this subject, would probably not be very interesting. The theater is perhaps not the best classroom for this issue. Movies are a medium of storytelling and should be judged, inter alia, on that basis. There are some good things to be said about the storyline of Risen.

The film follows the actions of a fictitious Roman tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) tasked with recovering the body of Jesus. This approach is new and provides a fresh framing. Additionally, the filmmakers have made creative and interesting choices in how to portray scenes from the gospels and, even better, in which scenes to portray. Every Jesus movie has to choose which of the many events in the early Christian writings to put on screen. Unfortunately, most films follow a standard pattern in which the same scenes are staged again and again, often in exactly the same way, with practically the same words.

In Risen, we get to see a number of scenes that are unusual in the Jesus-movie genre, as well as unusual portrayals of a few classic scenes. Some of the most tired and predictable scenes are left out. The result is a narrative that is creative and novel (even to someone who does this stuff for a living).

Those who seek fidelity to the Christian texts may object, and some may say that such creative retellings blur the lines between fiction and history. Since I take the gospels as fiction anyway, this issue does not concern me. Those Jesus movies that harp on claims of historical fidelity are actually more alarming to me, since they are no more historical despite their assertions. Risen, to its credit, puts on no historical heirs and does something narratively interesting.

Now for the negatives. The film’s anti-Judaism is apparent. It is present to a lesser degree than in other Jesus movies (notoriously the 2004 The Passion of the Christ), but this is mostly because many of the most virulently anti-Jewish scenes in the gospels are left out. Nevertheless, when Jews are on screen (Jesus and his followers excepted) they are bad.

The Romans come off slightly better. They are exhausted with the fanatic Jews and their religion, but seem resigned to their fate as rulers of such people (this is what I mean by a first century version of ‘the white man’s burden’ myth). However, they seem equally exhausted with their own religion. Pilate (Peter Firth) and Clavius are both portrayed as too street-smart and savvy to take the silly Roman gods seriously. Clavius genuinely tries with Mars, but his skepticism is manifest. These caricatures of Jewish and Roman religion play into the Christian supersessionist narrative, which portrays Christianity as a welcome replacement for the supposedly ridiculous religions that came before it. The film (like so many) assumes that people are drawn to Christianity because it is just clearly true, whereas other religions are just clearly not. This triumphalist narrative will certainly appeal to many devout Christians, but it is bad history that has real consequences in our world (social Darwinism, racism, anti-Semitism, interreligious conflict, colonialism, among others).

My final points focus on the message of this triumphant Christianity. The Jesus of Risen is content-less; there are almost no teachings. This is the result of the narrative frame of the movie. The teachings, miracles, etc. all happened in the time period before the action of Risen takes place. Presumably, we are to assume some version of the New Testament Jesus, but this presumption may have an insidious result. The portrayal of Jesus’ teaching is minimalist. Here is what we know from the film: Jesus was not trying to be a political threat, nor any kind of threat. His main message seems to be that everyone should be happy and love each other. The disciples are completely overcome by the message of love. They are positively giddy with it. When pressed to explain Jesus and his mission, they mostly respond with giggle-fits and expressions of transcendent wonder. Jesus himself (Cliff Curtis) mostly smiles at his followers, smiles into the camera, and pats people reassuringly.

This is a recurring theme with many modern Jesus movies. Jesus is portrayed as so utterly saccharine and nice that it is hard to imagine why anyone would ever be against him, unless, of course, they were just intrinsically evil like the Jews and the Romans (see the supersessionist narrative above). The problem: a Jesus who just walks around Judea and the Galilee suggesting that everyone be nice to each other does not end up dead on a Roman cross. Such portrayals of Jesus attempt to whitewash any potentially challenging social or political message. Almost all Jesus movies do this to some extent (the works of Pier Paolo Pasolini being an interesting exception), but Risen takes this to a new level by hardly having any teachings at all.

Throughout the film, it is clear that the Jewish leaders are scared of Jesus because they fear the toppling of their corrupt religious monopoly. However, the Romans are also scared of him but no one can seem to say why. Since the Romans don’t believe much in their gods anyway it cannot be fear of religious reform. It is hard to explain why a general outbreak of niceness is so alarming to them. This is an extreme version of the ‘happy’ Jesus, washed of any political message, stripped of any economic significance, gelded of any challenging social teachings. Meeting this Jesus is not a call to any specific action; it’s more like a long deep pull of nitrous oxide. Even the disciples don’t seem to have learned anything actionable— that they should love their enemies, for example. When Peter (Stewart Scudamore) encounters a suspicious former enemy who wants to join the group, he is not at all loving (though he comes around eventually). Jesus is not calling upon anyone to do anything specific or difficult, but simply to do the best they can, be generally nice, and laugh a lot. I predict this portrayal will strike a happy cord with many, and this is telling of the modern moment.

Throughout the movie, I was thinking about the recent and deeply insightful work of Craig Martin (Capitalizing Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie). Martin argues that the current trend of people identifying as ‘spiritual’ instead of ‘religious’ is part of a process of stripping religion of any particular content and thus making it palatable and consumable for modern middle-class capitalists. Being ‘spiritual,’ as Martin argues, seems to be about self-affirmation, being minimally moral, and generally happy. ‘Spiritual’ does not make difficult political, economic, or social demands. It does not demand a significant change in lifestyle, values, or patterns of consumption. It does not require one to face or resist systemic injustice or inequality with which a consumerist lifestyle is complicit. The Jesus of Risen seems to me a spiritualist god—inwardly focused, challenge avoidant, contentless, happy.

All Jesus movies are mirrors, capturing—intentionally or un- —the tenor of some portion of their world. This may be our first millennial Jesus.

Daniel Ullucci, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Rhodes College, Memphis, TN

(I’d like to thank my colleague Sarah Rollens for giving me the opportunity to write this piece.)