By Jared Tomlinson
Gregorian chant. Byzantine iconography. Gothic architecture. Renaissance polyphony. The Inklings. For most of the past two millennia, Christians have been at the forefront of the world’s aesthetic life. And then the twentieth century arrived.
During the twentieth century, especially its latter half, Christians traded their leading role for cheap imitation of the rest of the world’s artistic output. The results speak for themselves. We had Johann Sebastian Bach, now we have Hillsong. We had C. S. Lewis. Now we have Frank Peretti. And we have Christian movies. God, forgive us for Christian movies.
The latest is a flick called Risen. It tells the story of a Roman tribune ordered by Pontius Pilate to investigate the disappearance of the body of Jesus of Nazareth. The most disappointing thing about Risen is not that it’s a particularly bad film—it’s certainly better than most of the faith-based fare on offer. No, the most disappointing thing about Risen is that it could have been a pretty good one.
Really, it should have been a pretty good one. It was written and directed by Kevin Reynolds, who made an excellent adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo in 2002. It boasts considerable acting talent in its leading man, the formidable Joseph Fiennes. But, it’s not. And here’s why.
Risen cops out. Midway through, it abandons the promise of its premise to pander to its target audience. Clavius, the aforementioned Roman tribune, spends the first half of the movie playing the detective. He tracks down disciples. He interrogates. He is determined to find the truth, and the body of Jesus, before it has decayed beyond recognition. But the more he follows the evidence, the less sense the whole thing makes to him.
Throughout this part of the film, Risen largely succeeds. It places before its audience a confounding mystery and beckons them to join Clavius in solving it. Then, all of a sudden, it spoon-feeds him the answer to the mystery (and with him, the audience)! Following Mary Magdalene, he finds himself in the upper room with the disciples, in the company of the resurrected Christ.
Clavius spends the latter half of the movie as a sort of thirteenth apostle, present for the majority of Christ’s post-resurrection ministry, even witnessing his ascension. The film invites its target evangelical audience to participate with him in this exciting time, seemingly for the purpose of provoking the reaction, “Wow! Wouldn’t it be cool to have been there!”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a Christian. I believe that following the evidence leads to a resurrected Christ. But this is just bad storytelling. What good mystery solves itself halfway through? By copping out, Risen doesn’t just fail to tell a good story, it fails to be a thought-provoking film, content with leaving the Christian viewer feeling good about his faith, and the non-Christian thinking, “Maybe something strange did happen two thousand years ago in Jerusalem. But, I’ll never know. I’ll never burst into the upper room like Clavius and see him myself.”
So, I stand by my initial reaction: Sorry Christian friends, Risen was not a good film. If you’re interested in art that challenges and doesn’t simply pander and try to make you feel good about being a Christian to get to your wallet, try Calvary, Tree of Life, or To The Wonder.