A Review of Risen by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Four Reels
Risen begins as a proto-detective story about a 1st century Sherlock Holmes investigating the claims of Resurrection hours after its supposed happening. It’s a fascinating premise, so it’s a bit a jolt when the puzzle is solved less than an hour into its screen time. Yet it is even more surprising that the story becomes more interesting, not less. As a piece of craftsmanship, there’s much to fault but as a theological treatise leaves much to glean. Like the evidence itself, it lingers, even after acceptance.
The detective is Roman tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), Pilate’s “enforcer” who squashes any Judean dissent with violent retribution. A weathered veteran of many wars, he freely admits in a moment of rare vulnerability that all he wants is “peace…a day without death.” When Pilate asks him to supervise the crucifixion of three criminals, he carries out the task with all the zeal of notarizing an envelope. Yet only days later, there is a rumor that one of these men has risen from the dead. “We must have a body,” Pilate sneers. Clavius goes to great lengths to find it: interviewing disciples, visiting the site, and even digging up graves. The answer seems easy at first, but a keen eye and cool intellect leads him to into places that question the “official story” and reveal something extraordinary.
This is the first film since Pasolini’s Gospel According St. Matthew that feels like an accurate depiction of 1st century Palestine. The thing that stands out immediately is the sparely populated landscape. An early battle scene between Romans and Jewish zealots contains not thousands of CGI legions locked in heated combat but only a few dozen soldiers that easily over power their poorly disciplined advisories. This occurred at a time when there were only 250 million on the entire planet. The crucifixion too takes place on interchangeable planks that are used over and over, the bodies dumped in a heap only yards away. Food is scare. Everyone has a toothache. Even the best clothes are faded and ripped. The world is bloody, sweaty, and caked in dust. For most people, this was just another day.
As Clavius interviews the disciples, their reactions seem out of place. Mary Magdalen’s is uneven, first acting fearful then immersed in bliss. Bartholomew comes across even worse. This was a strange time when the disciples knew of the Resurrection but had not yet received the Spirit. They know something is up yet are still tied to their mixed emotions. Oddly, it is Peter the denier who is the most solid. He is invigorated, excited for what is to come.
Halfway through the narrative, Risen takes a dramatic turn when Clavius unexpectedly discovers the truth. He writes back to Pilate, explaining his confusion:
“I have seen two things which cannot reconcile: A man dead without question, and that same man alive again. I pursue Him, the Nazarene, to ferret the truth.”
It’s at this crucial juncture that Risen becomes more than just an Easter TV special. Director Kevin Reynolds understands that evidence does not automatically equal faith and gives Clavius (and the audience) times to ponder what this revelation means. He temporarily takes leave of his post to join the disciples, waiting for more answers.
When I was in 2nd grade, I had a wonderful teacher named Sr. Regina who would lead us through my favorite prayer meditation. We would enter a special room in our heart where Jesus waited. Once there, he would listen to us, comfort us, and let us know that everything would be alright. There is a moment where Clavius gets this one-on-one opportunity to bear his soul before this man he helped killed. “What are you afraid of,” the man asks. “Being wrong,” Clavius admits looking into his eyes. Even the best of us are worried, with all the evidence the created world can offer, that it’s just too good to be true. In the end, faith is choice, not a feeling or even a logical conclusion. The title of the film is present tense, reminding the viewer that this event occurs throughout time and space. What is our choice, and once chosen, what will we do?
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on February 26th, 2016.