A Review of the Movie Risen
This article features a review of the movie Risen, which follows Clavius, a Roman Tribune under Pontius Pilate in the days and weeks following the death of Jesus of Nazareth. The story focuses on the development of Clavius, who is not a believer in Jesus, as he attempts to track down Jesus’ body and suppress the rise of early Christianity, all the while finding his skepticism challenged as evidence for a resurrection amounts. Watch the official trailer here:
Risen differs from the Passion of the Christ in that it primarily focuses on the events following the crucifixion. In this way Risen puts into film a story that is new to Hollywood and never gets old in the hearts of many. And it does a great job telling this story, from both an aesthetic and historical standpoint.
It is entertaining, uplifting, motivating, and a useful apologetic for the Christian faith, as explained below. It has a few flaws as well (the dialogue is hard to understand at times, and it drags on a bit near the end), but overall I give it a positive review (9/10) and highly recommend it to both Christian and non-Christian audiences alike.
Below are seven positive features of Risen that make it worth your time.
1. It is Historically Accurate
Apart from obvious permissions for creative license, Risen features a historically accurate portrayal of the weeks following Jesus’ death. It gets right the following established historical facts about Jesus:
- That he was crucified under the rule of Pontius Pilate.
- That he was buried thereafter in the family tomb of Joseph of Arimethia.
- That women discovered this tomb empty on the Sunday following the crucifixion.
- That various individuals and groups of people then experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death.
- That the original followers of Jesus suddenly and sincerely came to be convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead, despite predispositions to contrary, and retained this belief in the face of increasing persecution.
In addition to getting these general facts right, Risen gets many details right as well. Examples of such details include the procedure of the crucifixion, the actions of the guards following the discovery of the empty tomb, and the response by the Jewish community claiming that the disciples stole Jesus’ body and lied about the resurrection.
2. Its Creative License is Reasonable
In order to put a story like this into film, some imaginative additions are necessary. Such additions come in the fictional character of Clavius, the film’s main character. Clavius is inserted into some of the events described in the gospels, which taints them with some imaginative embellishment as well. But this is done in a way that does not distort or draw away from the historical features of the events themselves (i.e., the events are told in a way consistent with the gospel accounts, only with Clavius inserted into them).
Moreover, despite being a fictional character, Clavius plausibly is a sort of composite of many people who probably did exist at the time. That is, there were of course skeptical Roman generals who dealt with the rise of early Christianity, as well as some who were probably present during many of the events described in the gospels, including some who interacted with the early Christians themselves. So whether or not there was any one person resembling Clavius himself in history, no parts of his character are implausible given first century Jewish and Roman society.
Risen does portray Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, which goes beyond what we know about her from the canonical gospel accounts. (Some in Christian tradition have identified her with the sinful woman in Luke 7 – who was probably a prostitute – but this woman is unnamed in Luke.) But this is the only real mistake in the movie.
3. It Isn’t Lame
Let’s face it: Christian movies have the reputation of being lame. Risen is not lame. It watches like a real movie, has genuine character development, is emotionally compelling, and creates an overall enjoyable experience. The characters are not puppets with endless biblical allusions coming out of their mouths, but rather feature real and well-written dialogue (some profound and even some comical), and very much come off as realistic people for the setting.
There are of course elements that may appear ridiculous to some viewers. But these sorts of things are peculiar more so to the Bible than to the movie itself. They appear weird to us because we do not normally experience these things, but perhaps this is an indication of our own skepticism and reservations about the reality that the Bible portrays, which is more plausibly a fault with us than with the Bible itself.
4. It Challenges Skepticism Towards Christianity
Despite covering events in the first century, Risen is a movie that is eminently relevant for us today. Following a non-Christian who himself finds his skepticism challenged by the evidence for the resurrection, non-Christian viewers will find their skepticism challenged as well. Just as Clavius is called to respond, so too are non-Christians called to respond to the resurrection evidence.
Risen is thus a great movie for seeing with non-Christian friends in order to start a dialogue.
5. It Features Profound and Compelling Dialogue
Continuing the point about the relevance of Risen for us today, the film features numerous dialogues between Clavius about issues that arise even for us as we think about the Christian faith. For instance, at one point Clavius is talking with a Christian and asking him many questions about what might follow if the resurrection really occurred, to which the Christian responds that he cannot answer all of his questions, and that they are quite astounded themselves. Other examples include dialogues about freedom, and what the resurrection might give believers in the face of persecution and worldly concerns.
But the most compelling dialogue centers around Clavius’ discussions with others throughout the movie regarding the development of his own thinking. Many scenes give us insights into the mind of a non-Christian regarding what he ultimately seeks in life, and whether that can ultimately be fulfilling. As a result, the viewer is implicitly called to consider what she thinks about her purpose in life as well.
6. It References the Shroud of Turin
One of the most impressive subtle elements of Risen, in my view, is that it features what is clearly meant to be a reference to the Shroud of Turin. This shroud is purported to be the burial cloth of Jesus, having the impression of a face that is perhaps the face of Jesus at the time of the resurrection. Much speculation has gone on about whether the shroud really is the burial cloth of Jesus, and it is reasonable to remain uncertain about its authenticity in light of some conflicting evidence.
At the same time, there are some interesting pieces of evidence that speak in its favor, and some argue that the features of the impression cannot be reproduced by present technology (much less first century technology). If so, then they argue that its origin must have been in some sort of flash of light unable to be created by natural means.
Regardless of whether this shroud is authentic, that it is featured in Risen once again demonstrates the impressive attention to detail and sensitivity to present day concerns taken by the movie.
7. It is Spiritually Refreshing for Christians
In viewing the movie I found myself not merely entertained, but intellectually stimulated, emotionally captured, and spiritually refreshed as well. Many features of the movie recall for me the great distinctives of the Christian faith that shape my life, and of the person who created that faith. Seeing Risen is thus spiritually worthwhile for Christians as well as non-Christians.
To learn more about the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, see our Evidence for the Resurrection series.
What are your own impressions of Risen? Did you like it or dislike it, and why? Let me know in the comments below!