Thursday, June 2, 2016


From Risen (2016): Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and another disciple
It must be a great risk to write a screenplay for and to produce a Bible movie. There are many people involved, and what they add, or take away, from the Bible story depends on what faith, or lack of it, they have. Even a ‘believing’ artist can betray a superficial connexion to the God who has chosen human literature, music, art, and yes, even movies, to be vehicles of His Word.

Today I watched for the first time the recent film about the resurrection of Jesus, Risen (2016). It is often billed as ‘a great addition to movies about the life of Christ’ joining The Passion of the Christ (2004) and other such films. Neither of these two movies is really about the life of Christ, but only about small snatches of it, arranged with a specific object in mind, His death, His resurrection.

In The Passion of the Christ, we were treated to a film that attempted to be so historical that the only languages spoken were Aramaic and Latin (not a word of Greek, which was the other Middle Eastern tongue in Jesus’ time) and we had to read subtitles in whatever our modern language was. The additions, and the actual portrayal of Christ’s passion, were slanted towards Catholic fundamentalism.

We’re more accustomed to viewing Bible films slanted towards Protestant fundamentalism. The only film which, for all its shortcomings, I still think the best, Jesus of Nazareth (1977), tries to be faithful to history, casting the characters in conformity to Orthodox icons, yet it too adds or changes what should not be tampered with, this time not from a religious slant, but political correctness.

Disciple sitting side by side with Clavius. (Isn't this a modern way of sitting?)
Only The Gospel of John (2003) is entirely true to the scriptural record, even to the point of using the text of the gospel as dialog. Its shortcomings are understandable—casting of a ‘white’ Jesus and apostles, a folksy familiarity in the behavior of the characters, a kind of ‘Good News for Modern Man’ approach. Of all the films I’ve seen, only this one could probably be trusted to use in media evangelism.

Back to Risen, there is no problem with the character of Jesus. In this film, He is only seldom in view, and He is cast as a short or medium tall, dark skinned white typical of the Mediterranean races. His apostles, though, range from exuberant, wild-eyed American hippie to solemn Levantine man. Casting must have ignored the icons. Peter looks like what we expect of Paul, in features and temperament.

The theme of Risen is, of course, the resurrection of Jesus. What makes it unique, is that it chronicles the life of a Roman tribune, Clavius, who is assigned by Pontius Pilate to produce the body of Jesus, or at least find out what happened to it. This is entirely fictional, but forgivable because that is understood from the outset. We know there was no Clavius, but inventing one shows ‘what might’ve happened.’

This kind of device, for drama’s sake, or to bring out the point of a particular event or personage, is not limited to modern times. In ancient times all of literature, even history, even what later became the scriptures, was permeated by dramatic or poetic license. ‘It might’ve happened this way’ often became ‘It must’ve happened this way’ and finally ‘This is exactly what happened,’ or even ‘God’s own words.’

Examining the shroud in the empty tomb. (Wow! So the Shroud is authentic!)
Risen starts out with scenes of carnage. Out of these scenes arises the figure of a Roman officer, a tribune, a position in collaboration with that of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. The chronology of the opening scenes is the very day of Christ’s crucifixion. We get to see Him on the Cross just after He expired. The legs of the thieves are broken, and His side is pierced to make sure He’s really dead.

Clavius gives the order not to break His legs but to spear Him, apparently upon Jesus’s Mother being pointed out to him, to spare her any more grief. Clavius is portrayed as a rational and moral man who is disgusted with killing, and who somehow gets to be the Roman most involved with ‘this case.’ The Bible story is followed closely at this point, with the addition of Clavius, as the plot develops.

Finding the tomb empty, Clavius is ordered to investigate. The film takes a short turn into the genre of ancient detective story, if there is such a thing, as well as propaganda for a certain relic. When examining the shroud, Christ’s face appears on it, exactly as depicted on the Shroud of Turin. This causes him to ask a Jew standing by (probably Joseph of Arimathaea) if the body had been anointed.

Seeing that the evidence points not to grave-robbery but to some unusual event—the ropes holding the stone in place are pulled apart, not cut, and the seal is melted, as well as the facial image being burned into burial clothes, Clavius pursues his mission to find out what happened in earnest. He tracks down people who are known to have been followers of Jesus, and interrogates them, without effect.

Roman Tribune Clavius enters the room a second time and is welcomed by Jesus.
One follower, Bartholomew, is a hippie mystic and acts so silly, Clavius doesn’t know what to make of him. Mary Magdalene is a mature matron with a definite mystique about her, but staunchly refuses to tell him anything he doesn’t already know. Finally, Clavius does find out where the disciples are holed up. He goes there and breaks down the door, leaving his second in command, and men, down in the street.

With sword in hand, in the light of the opened door, Clavius sees a bunch of ragged native men, and in the midst of them, the Man he saw crucified and dead. Stunned, he goes back outside and tells his companions to stand down, that he doesn’t need their help. They depart, and he returns to the room.

That second time he enters, another young Jew scuttles in alongside him in the doorway and falls down in front of Jesus, who is sitting on the floor with His disciples. Clavius lets his sword fall from his hand as he sees Jesus showing His wounds to the newly arrived Thomas, and he hears Jesus welcoming him and asking him to join them. Very, very unscriptural, but theological. Jesus says this to everyone of us.

After a few minutes, suddenly Jesus is gone. Peter recounts what he had been told by Mary Magdalene (who is actually in the room and was standing behind Jesus when Clavius first entered) that they were to meet Him in Galilee. They decide that is where they are to go next, and Clavius follows them, though at first, disbelieving that they would accept him, at a distance. On the journey they begin to trust each other.

The risen Christ in Galilee hugs a leper and heals him.
All this is, of course, dramatic license and non-history, but it works well. Pontius Pilate sends a squadron of soldiers after Clavius, hearing from his second in command, that he may have come to believe in the resurrection and joined the disciples. They evade them, and arrive in Galilee, at the lake, where the disciples complain of being hungry, so Peter takes them all, including Clavius, out fishing in a boat.

Here, the gospel story picks up again. All night fishing and no fish. Suddenly a man on the shore calls out ‘Catch anything?’ and tells them to put down the nets on the other side, at which point the boat nearly capsizes from the load of fish. Next, everyone abandons ship, but Clavius, and wades to shore where they do a group hug around the Man who called out to them. Finally, we see Clavius with them.

Another extra-biblical scene is interjected. A woman nearby is furiously beating a leper and driving him away. Jesus gets up and goes to the man, sits on the ground with him, giving him a big hug, and then returns to the disciples. Next, the leper still looking leprous gets up and walks away. After about ten paces, he turns around and you see his face, normal and clean, and he shows his hand, also clean.

I suppose the writer wanted to add something a little miraculous because except for the empty tomb and the Ascension, in this film Jesus doesn’t really get to do any miracles. He just (usually) sits there, smiling and hugging His disciples. When the time comes for Him to ascend into heaven, which happens next, you see Him on a hilltop with a big sunrise behind Him as He shouts the Great Commission.

At night, Jesus talks to Clavius, and asks him, 'What are you afraid of?'
This is out of historical context, but it doesn’t matter, since we already know how the film must wrap up. And wrap up it does indeed, just like any Sunday School flic, but with a novel twist. As He walks backwards telling them He will be with them always, suddenly He is absorbed into the sun, which gets brighter, and a powerful blast of wind practically knocks down the disciples standing in a row watching.

This reminded me of a lot of extra-terrestrial encounter movies, a nice blending of science fiction, religion, with a hint of nuclear energy. The movie ends this way, and, I forgot to mention, practically the whole film is a flashback and a narrative by Clavius, who is shown later in life as a desert father. He stops at an inn, was telling the inn-keeper the story, and then pays him by giving him his tribune’s ring.

All in all, I can imagine why this film was given a mediocre rating by moviegoers. As a Christian I almost always want to check out any bible movie that is produced, though some I can tell are not worth looking at, just from the descriptions and trailers. This film is saved by Joseph Fiennes (Clavius) presence, not so much his acting, but just by his presence and his mastery of facial emotion.

Watched once too many times, this film could become tiresome, but as it is, I’ll probably want to watch it at least once a year, but I still wonder, maybe the Bible, especially the Gospel, simply can’t be turned into a movie, unless you change absolutely nothing. And that, if I were a film maker, that would be, I hope, what I would do.

The disciples are blinded and nearly swept off their feet by the flash of light and the fierce wind that issues forth as Christ withdraws from their sight at His Ascension.

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