“Risen” is hitting the theaters, and with Easter coming, tons of Christians will see it -- some of whom know their Bibles, and some of whom don’t. So how to tell what’s scripted from what’s scripture in this film?
First off, Risen is a terrific movie. It’s packed with action and drama, and is really well acted, especially by Joseph Fiennes in the role of Clavius, a war-weary Roman tribune in 33AD Judea. His job is to track down the missing body of a certain crucified man named Yeshua. The writing is superb, the music driving and the dusty locales convincing. For a biblical epic about the life of the early Church, there's a ton of action -- from Zealot attacks on the Tenth Legion, to frantic door-to-door searches to suspenseful desert escapes. But since we're dealing with 1st century Judea --one of the most studied and important periods for the Jewish and Christian faiths -- there is perhaps less room for artistic license than elsewhere. This isn't Star Wars, after all, where a blank canvas awaits the artist's brush.
So fasten your cinctures – this will be a wild ride with lots of spoilers. I’ll be handing out halos for hits and pitchforks for misses and mistakes.
Risen starts with clanging mano-a-mano combat between a motley band of Jewish Zealots and a detachment of disciplined Roman troops. Halos for the convincing costumes and fighting techniques! The Jews roll stones down hills and shoot their slings and arrows against the Romans' armor, swords and javelins. But pitchforks for killing off Barabbas, the zealot leader. Isn’t he supposed to be captured alive so Pilate can offer a choice between him and Jesus? Halos however for showing the Zealots as more than a bunch of, well, zealots! They were the fighting descendants of the Maccabees, who two centuries earlier had given the Greeks the boot.
Clavius, our war-weary Roman tribune, gore-bestrewn from battle, shows up at Calvary, where he finds one crucified man--decked with a crown of thorns--glassy-eyed and obviously dead. While the other crucified men have their legs broken, soft-hearted Clavius (because the dead man’s mom is watching) has an underling jab a spear under his ribs. Halos for keeping close to the gospels! But pitchforks for knocking over the crosses to remove the dead. In reality, the upright was permanently embedded in the ground. Halos though for nailing the ankles into the sides of the upright rather than to its front. That’s consistent with the only remains of a crucified man found to date. Halos too for having the soldiers throw their dead victims into a stinking, fly-infested pit. Most crucifixion victims did not receive a proper burial. But pitchforks for calling these men thieves; Romans executed rebels, not robbers.
The next day Pilate meets in his headquarters with high priest Caiaphas. Halo: Caiaphas is worried that Christ's disciples might try to stage a resurrection by stealing the body. Pitchfork: no way would Caiaphas spend Passover kibitzing in a gentile’s residence! He’d be made impure and couldn’t do his job. And a big pointy pitchfork for making Caiaphas's nose so hooked. Like there’s a cinematic rule: “The badder the Jew, the bigger the nose.” Yikes.
Easter comes, and there are reports that the tomb is empty. Jewish priests have given sanctuary to the hapless guards, and are bribing them to lie about what happened. Halo for following Matthew 28. But pitchforks for the mayhem at the tomb! The stone is blown yards away from the opening. The thick cords binding the stone to the rock face have been torn apart as though by superhuman hands. One guard later confesses to an incredible light emanating from the tomb. But three of the gospels don’t even mention the moment of the Resurrection. And Matthew only mentions an earthquake. Halos for showing the burial cloths imprinted with a Shroud of Turin-like impression of Yeshua’s face. Pitchfork for having Tiberias set to arrive in ten days. The Emperor never set foot in Palestine.
Major pitchfork for showing Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Sure, she was exorcised of seven (unidentified) demons, but she gets confused with the “sinful” woman who anointed Jesus’s feet. Big pitchfork for having Peter call God “Yahweh,” a word reserved for the high priest, and once a year at that. Minor pitchfork for not having Peter jump overboard naked when he sees the Risen Jesus. Halo for using Jesus’s Aramaic name, “Yeshua,” but pitchforks for putting the disciples on first-name basis with the one they always called Teacher or Master. Big pitchforks for the hash the film made of the Ascension and Pentecost. A blast of light and feathers covers the disciples at the Ascension, as though they were standing behind a jet engine as it sucked in a goose. Halos for a Jesus who is human, loving, ordinary looking and doesn’t dress in white. Pitchforks for him being more mate than Messiah.
For all the liberties the film took with the gospels, Risen was a good watch. Despite getting a kid-sized pitchfork for biblical accuracy it gets a halo for not hitting you over the head with its religiosity. Its pious belief in the Resurrection makes it unquestionably a Christian film. But its core message is about human beings finding release from the world’s futility and brutality. And if that's the only thing you can get out of a tale based on Christ's exodus from death to life, that's not bad.