February 18, 2016

‘Risen’ movie raises old Hollywood trope — unbeliever meets Jesus

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Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) leads his Roman soldiers during the zealot battle in Columbia Pictures' RISEN. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) leads his Roman soldiers during the zealot battle in Columbia Pictures' RISEN. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

 

Faithful Viewer logo. Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

Faithful Viewer logo. Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

“Faithful Viewer” is an occasional feature in which RNS reporters plumb religion and spirituality in film, television, books, music and other forms of popular culture.

(RNS) An unbeliever in the midst of an existential crisis meets Jesus and has a conversion experience. High-mindedness — not high jinks — ensues.

Audiences have seen this old Hollywood trope before: in “Quo Vadis,” (1951),  “The Robe,” (1953), “Ben Hur” (1959). And now in “Risen,” opening Friday (Feb. 19), a month before Easter.

Risen movie poster. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

“Risen” movie poster. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

And while a lot has changed in the nearly seven decades since the first of these “come to Jesus” movies, the core plot mechanism of “he-of-little-faith meeting the ultimate man of faith” remains.

Why the resurrection of such an old narrative device, minus the sequined costumes, wigs and Max Factor makeup, which have been replaced by whips, scourges and buckets of blood (thanks, Mel Gibson and “The Passion of the Christ”!)?

“I think the idea of being carried through the narrative of Christ, from his Crucifixion to the Resurrection and the Ascension, through the eyes of nonbeliever allows us to come at this from a soft angle,” said Joseph Fiennes, the British actor who plays unbeliever Clavius in “Risen.” “Clavius represents the everyman. We’re all on a hunt, theological or not. We’re all on some form of investigation or discovery.”


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In “Risen,” Clavius is a high-ranking Roman soldier who, as the right-hand man of Pontius Pilate (an excellent Peter Firth), has a front-row seat at the Crucifixion. With his own eyes he sees Jesus dead and buried in a sealed tomb. So when the body is missing and reports of Jesus sightings come in, Clavius turns into the most skeptical of detectives, looking for the corpse.

Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) leads his Roman soldiers during the zealot battle in Columbia Pictures' RISEN. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) leads his Roman soldiers during the zealot battle in Columbia Pictures’ “Risen.” Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Instead (SPOILER ALERT!) , he encounters a very much alive, very jolly Jesus (“Yeshua,” in this film, played by Cliff Curtis). From there, let’s just say Clavius makes some changes in his life.

The end.

Not much of a surprise in terms of plot — and that’s the point, said William Blizek, founding editor of the Journal of Religion and Film.

“It’s a nice model and it works,” Blizek said. “It is about change. You’re changing for the better. If you’re a nonbeliever and you see a nonbeliever become a Christian, the message to you is, ‘If you do this you’ll be a happy camper, too.'”


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Clavius (Joseph Fiennes, left) warns Lucius (Tom Felton) to let them all pass, after he discovers him leading the apostles away from the Roman soldiers in Columbia Pictures' RISEN. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Clavius (Joseph Fiennes, left) warns Lucius (Tom Felton) to let them all pass, after he discovers him leading the apostles away from the Roman soldiers in Columbia Pictures’ “Risen.” Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

But that kind of Christian comfort food can work against a movie, said Doug Cowan, a professor of religious studies at the University of Waterloo who studies religion and film. Movies that present a more controversial idea of the Gospels or of Jesus — think “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), where picketers were so upset by the film’s married Jesus that they attacked a theater — can bring in larger audiences, curious about the controversy.

“Those movies aren’t hot dogs and beer,” Cowan said. “They say there are some very hard things we need to chew over in this movie.”

Case in point — 2004’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Director-writer Gibson said it was based strictly on the New Testament Gospels, but scholars such as Cowan said it was also based on the very graphic visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th-century mystic nun. And many critics condemned it for its anti-Semitic portrayal of Jews as the bloodthirsty killers of Jesus.

“That wasn’t comfort food,” Cowan said, and audiences came out in record numbers.

But gentler, easier-to-swallow Bible movies such as “Risen” have their place, Cowan said. They are for “reality maintenance,” he said — not intended to make new believers as much as to reinforce the beliefs of existing ones.

Hollywood “is always telling the same stories because we are always asking the same questions,” Cowan said. “Who are we, where do we come from, what is the purpose of my life? We are simply driven to ask the questions, whether we get the answers or not.”

(Kimberly Winston is a national correspondent for Religion News Service)

Video courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment via YouTube

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  • Fran

    Ben Hur is a great classic.

  • I’m sure Christians will be comforted by the idea of a vicious pagan Roman soldier tracking down the risen Jesus and “seeing the Light” as a result. But, that’s not the idea which is actually taught by their religion. Not at all! The ideal Christian, as reportedly explained by Jesus himself in John 20:24-29, is that only those “who who did not see, and yet believed” can truly be “blessed.” By tracking down Jesus, “Clavius” violated this ordinance.

  • Great article, Kimberly. Thanks!
    Mary Rakow

  • Frank Schwimmer

    Another Jesus movie….I´ll go see Deadpool instead

  • Diane Baker

    Just came from seeing this movie. I thought it was different, interesting and thought provoking. It was good to see this story played out from the viewpoint of someone who wasn’t a disciple, who wasn’t a first hand witness of things that had transpired during Jesus’ teaching. I believe it gives Christians a better understanding of how a non-believer might view the story of Christ and how and why they may have doubts. I think the story plays out very well.

  • Dan Wood

    Unfortunately, most reviews of this movie will be written by Hollywood atheists, who will approach the subject with the scorn and ridicule that seems to be the haute de rigueur with liberal society today.
    Objectively, it is just a well made film, with good casting, good acting and a new spin on a well known story.
    I just saw it and highly recommend it