Like CSI, the film “Risen”—a Sony/TriStar production that opens today—starts after “the main event” has happened and follows the main character as he seeks to piece together evidence. Set in Jerusalem at the time of Christ, the story begins with the Crucifixion rather than ending with it. It follows the fictional hero, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love), an ambitious, high-ranking Roman tribune, and his aide, Lucius (Tom Felton, Harry Potter), as they sort rumor from reality.
Clavius has already seen enough of death; he wants only to retire in peace. But Pontius Pilate tasks him with maintaining order in the city before a visit from the Emperor. Pilate is specifically concerned with the followers of a rabbi who has been crucified. The governor wants everyone to forget about this man, so he orders the body guarded.
Once the corpse is removed from the cross, it is released to Joseph of Arimethia and the tomb sealed with wax. Soldiers also secure the site with ropes so that the rabbi’s followers can’t steal the body. When it comes up missing anyway, jeopardizing Clavius’s future, Pilate charges him with finding it. What follows is the “greatest manhunt in history.”
Like Ben-Hur, the historical-fiction approach provides a vehicle for a fresh telling of the Passion and Resurrection. Yet unlike some of the great classics, this film does add scenes with Jesus using words the Gospels do not record him as saying. Some audience members have found such scenes quite moving. But biblical purists will probably find more compelling the testimony of the story’s “eyewitnesses.”
The skeptic Clavius is totally believable as a soldier doing his duty as he hunts for Jesus. He examines the tomb, burial cloths, and the stone at the grave. He also interrogates guards, witnesses on the streets, and Jesus’s friends and disciples. Because Clavius is a soldier, those who live in service of country as well as those who have seen too much of death—such as military, police and EMT personnel—will especially appreciate seeing the events from his unique point of view.
The Crucifixion is gory, and death is ugly. This film shows such realities as they are. The first fifteen minutes include an intense, violent battle scene. Jesus and two others are seen nailed to crosses. Christ’s side is pierced. And soldiers break the legs of those flanking him. Consequently, the film has a PG-13 (USA) rating “for biblical violence, including some disturbing images.” Parents and youth leaders will need to consider whether such scenes are age-appropriate for younger audiences.
Having attended the Rome premier, I recommend the film both for the committed Christian and the non-devout. There is no altar call at the end—just maybe a call to examine the evidence for yourself.