The film Risen retells the story of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension through the fictional Roman tribune Clavius, who supervises both Jesus’ crucifixion and the investigation into what happened to his missing body. Clavius’ encounter with the crucified Jesus, his interviews with enthusiastic disciples and other witnesses, and finally his encounters with the risen Jesus lead him to embrace faith.
Risen has ancient precedents. Early Christians created fictions of their own, testifying to Jesus through the perspective of Pontius Pilate. The Acts of Pilate and the Epistles of Pilate show a Roman prefect deeply troubled by Jesus, whom he sends to the cross. In the Acts of Pilate, Roman standards bow when Jesus enters the room, attesting to his holy identity. The Epistles of Pilate even portray him as a Christian convert. Risen, like its ancient predecessors, proclaims the gospel through the eyes of the Romans who killed Jesus.
Risen strings its story line through bits and pieces selected from the gospels, and as each of the Christian Gospels presents its own interpretation of Jesus, so does the film. One might describe this Jesus as “romantic”; he compels faith through the force of his presence. Jesus speaks little in the film, but even a look into his dead face takes hold of Clavius. Pontius Pilate sends Jesus to the cross but orders his legs broken in order to shorten the agony. (In John’s gospel, Pilate does so to placate the Jewish leaders.) Clearly shaken by his encounter with Jesus, Pilate issues this order while washing his hands. Jesus does take moments for one-on-one mentoring. When he does so with Clavius, he comes across like the perfect pastor or therapist, asking just the right questions and offering support.
The Jesus of Risen is largely spiritual. His teachings boil down to simple love. And he is harmless. One wonders why anyone would want him dead, since he poses no direct threat to the authorities. Pilate himself remarks on this: “It’s as if he wanted to be sacrificed.” The idea that Jesus sought his death may be common in popular piety, but it is foreign to the gospels.
Like most Jesus movies, Risen picks and chooses among the gospels to create its narrative. During the crucifixion, we witness Matthew’s earthquake and overhear Jesus’ triumphant last words from John: “It is finished!” We do not hear his final cry from Mark and Matthew: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The resurrection story includes the cover-up plot from Matthew, as well as two disciples’ encounter with the risen Jesus from Luke. As Jesus prepares to ascend, he utters quotations from John, Acts, and Matthew.
Such harmonization creates awkward moments. Risen quotes the promise (from Mark 16:7) that the risen Jesus will meet his disciples in Galilee. But only the author of Luke narrates Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and Luke places Jesus’ resurrection appearances in and around Jerusalem. In Risen, Jesus’ ascension very much resembles a space launch, but it occurs in Galilee. Mark knows nothing of Jesus’ ascension, and Luke describes no resurrection appearances in Galilee, but Risen blends the two. This kind of selective blending obscures the distinctive witness of each gospel, and it results in a Jesus who resembles none of the four gospels.
Risen does have its silly moments. The Shroud of Turin appears twice, with Jesus’ image burned into his burial cloth. We encounter the common portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, for which there is no biblical evidence. In one scene, Claudius asks how many of his troops know Mary, and one by one his soldiers raise their hands. We have chase scenes and a battle scene; Risen portrays the period as if, fueled by messianic fervor, Jews were waging pitched battles against the Romans.
There were no such battles, and we do not know how many Jews expected a messiah or what exactly they expected. As in the gospels, the film portrays the temple authorities as hopelessly hypocritical and manipulative. Pilate even calls them out for visiting him on the Sabbath. Almost all Jesus films convey an anti-Jewish bias, and though Risen does better than most, it still conveys the impression that Jews missed out on the messiah due to their own cluelessness and their leaders’ duplicity—an assumption that has accompanied great evil over the centuries.
Like the gospels, Risen tells the Jesus story in order to inspire its audience through its interpretation. Unfortunately, although it does draw upon these gospels for its portrait of Jesus, the Jesus of Risen doesn’t much resemble the one we meet in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
Image Credit: “Affreschi di Gaetano Bianchi sulla lunetta della Cappella Gentilizia Corsini (Villa Le Corti), San Casciano Val di Pesa” by Vignaccia76. CC BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.