Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I am not a fan of biblically inspired movies. Here’s why: More often than not, the plotlines deviate substantially from Bible narratives, all in the name of “creative liberty”. Take, for instance, 2014’s Exodus: Gods and Kings and Noah, which both took a skeptical view on faith and minimized God’s role in the stories. Naturally, then, I was wary of Risen, the latest faith story that is being positioned as a sequel to Mel Gibson’s critically acclaimed film in 2004, The Passion Of The Christ.
Helmed by American director Kevin Reynolds, Risen tells the story of Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), a powerful Roman tribune who is ordered by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to investigate the mystery of the missing body of Yeshua (Cliff Curtis)—as Jesus is referred to in the movie—and to locate it quickly to prevent an imminent uprising of the Jews. In doing so, it takes on Christianity’s greatest claim, that is, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, in a most controversial way—through the eyes of a non-believer.
And it works remarkably well. The idea of inviting people to view the death and resurrection of Jesus from the perspective of an outsider—one who has every reason to be skeptical about Jesus’ claims—is pure genius and highly compelling, both for the believer and non-believer alike.
On top of its well-crafted script that largely follows the biblical account, here are five reasons why I strongly recommend this show.
1. Although you don’t see much of him, the movie is all about Jesus.
From the start to the end, Yeshua appears on screen for less than one-fifth of the time and speaks less than 20 lines in total. Yet, there is not one moment in the story that deviates from him. When Pilate, Caiaphas, Clavius and his men aren’t talking about him, they’re busy looking for him.
This oblique approach is a refreshing take on this genre, usually criticized for simplistic storytelling and in-your-face presentations of the Messiah and his disciples. And because everyone seems to have seen or heard him but nobody knows for sure where he is, you almost feel like cheering when he finally makes his appearance onscreen.
2. You can identify with Clavius.
Unlike the peevish Pontius Pilate and manipulative Caiaphas who are hell-bent on ensuring that Yeshua didn’t rise from the dead (instead of finding out if he actually did), Clavius is presented as a highly capable and rational soldier who is more concerned about finding out the truth than pandering to politics. It’s hard not to like him, even though he starts out as a hard-hearted unbeliever.
In his quest to find out if Yeshua really rose from the dead, he tracks down numerous witnesses, including Mary Magdalene, who gives him cryptic answers like “open your heart”, and a blind woman who insists she’s heard Yeshua on the streets. Naturally, Clavius is skeptical. Who wouldn’t when all you have are hearsay and vague answers? But Clavius persists and continues in his dogged search for the truth, even when Pilate tells him to stop.
And you can’t help but root for him, because it’s exactly what you want. In some sense, most of us have a little of Clavius in us: we too want to find out if the Messiah has risen. Believer or non-believer, every one of us must have, at some point, wondered about the greatest story of all time. All unbelievers are Claviuses and most, if not all, believers would have started out as Claviuses. Like him, we are rational and reasonable beings who want solid evidence before we believe in Christ. But how will we respond when what we see goes against everything we used to believe?
3. You want to be a part of Jesus’ inner circle.
When the disciples finally make their grand appearance, you’ll be drawn to how tight-knit and different they are from the rest, and how they feel about their lives. There’s a sense of contentment and joy in simply being with Jesus even though it means constant opposition and uncertainty. There’s a sense of camaraderie and love for the downtrodden. And there’s a sense of belonging even though they don’t seem to have a home.
It’s a beautiful picture of what community is, and it makes you want to be a part of it.
4. You want to read your Bible again.
Normally, we tend to gloss over details of characters like Pilate, Caiaphas, Joseph of Arimathea, Simon Peter, and Mary Magdalene. But the movie’s unique perspective forces you to slow down and question every character and detail again. “Hang on, was that part in the Bible?” “What’s Caiaphas’ role again?” “Were there angels in the biblical account?”
After watching the show, there were so many questions I had about the people, the stakes involved, and the politics surrounding the crucifixion, that I automatically went back to the Bible (Matthew 28:11-15). After reading all four gospel accounts—again—I was brought to a deeper appreciation of what Jesus did.
5. You’re reminded why the resurrection is such a big deal.
One of the biggest things that struck me while watching this movie was how common crucifixions were in the time of Christ. Though it was horrific and entirely undeserved, there was in fact nothing unique about the way Jesus died. Under Roman rule, many suffered the same punishment, including the two thieves that hung at his side.
So to see a man who had been certified dead, buried, and locked away in a tomb, showing up again on the third day with marks in his hands and side, must have been amazing—or even terrifying. Risen brought these sentiments out perfectly, showing the chaos and fear his appearance must have caused among non-believers, and the joy and amazement among his believers.
The movie makes a big deal about Jesus’ resurrection—and rightly so. Indeed, all of Christianity hangs on the truth of it (1 Corinthians 15:14). And, like how the truth challenges Clavius in Risen, Christ’s resurrection demands a response—there is no way a person who has seen Jesus come back to life can ever be the same again. Like the movie, it sounds a call to the viewer: there is no way you can remain nonchalant about your faith after seeing the truth.
And it’s precisely because of this very last reason, that I urge you to watch this show. This Good Friday, let’s shake off our lethargy and be amazed by the greatest story ever told—again. May it invigorate us and inspire us to fall in love with Jesus all over again, and to share Him with others.