Risen (2016) is a rather different take on the Easter story, refreshing and intriguing. I can see why it would frustrate some viewers, as it deviates significantly from the Sunday School version and introduces the character of Clavius into the narrative. My one concern with it was that it omitted several important Biblical characters and compressed the time between the Resurrection and the Ascension into what seemed to be barely two weeks, rather than 40 days. All but the original eleven disciples disappeared from the story. However, I came to realise that this was simply the conservation of detail. This film was the story of Clavius and his faith, not a faithful depiction of the Gospels.
Clavius is the career-driven tribune charged by Pontius Pilate to first oversee Christ’s crucifixion and then be responsible for seeing that his tomb is sealed. Of course, that doesn’t got exactly as planned! So the film soon takes an investigative turn as Clavius searches for the missing body. Once again, the body is found very much alive a week later, and Clavius becomes an early believer in Christ. Of course, not being Jewish, he takes much longer to understand, and he is still not sure of himself as the credits roll. The film actually does not take too many liberties with the narrative – it is entirely canonical that a Roman soldier could have met the risen Christ and travelled with Him until the Ascension, along with a myriad of others. Had the filmmakers bothered to include other followers besides the Apostles, Clavius would have seemed less out of place.
Risen is both an existential drama and detective story. For the Romans, this was a particularly gruelling week at the office, what with Passover taking place and rebellion always simmering in Jerusalem. Clavius and his soldiers are simply doing their jobs, not thinking anything of the strange events happening. The storm and earthquake at the Crucifixion was unusual but not unexpected, much like a springtime blizzard to North Americans. Same with Christ’s early death on the cross. Even the missing body was not entirely out of the ordinary – it was quite conceivable that the guards might have been attacked and the stone rolled away by a dozen men, albeit it would not have been a very quiet incident! Really, for Clavius, this was just an increasingly tiring and frustrating work-week.
At its heart, the film encourages us to reflect on our lives. Clavius worked hard as a soldier with the hope that he could eventually retire to a nice country villa and have peace at the end of his life. He was tired of death but saw it as a necessary element of his job. Christ called him to change his life immediately, not sometime in the nebulous future. Clavius’s dream of a world without death was possible only in Him.
There is a lot left unsaid in this film, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Joseph Fiennes’s performance as Clavius is excellent, showing us the various aspects of the character while maintaining the stoic, well-trained appearance of a Roman soldier. The other actors also perform their roles well, feeling real despite sometimes a little caricaturish. How would the Apostles act, after all, having seen their leader risen from the dead? Overly giddy is not beyond expectations. Furthermore, Jewish characters might act flippant and mysterious when being questioned by Roman soldiers. The latter were an occupying army, after all.
This is a perfect film for the Lenten and Easter season, but a viewer needs to be able to draw their own conclusion from it. What does it mean to have a world without death? What is the end goal of our life? How strictly do we follow orders? What does it mean to show mercy? How high is the cost of peace? How do we marry faith and reason? Evidence and belief?