An Hour's Thoughts On "Risen" (2016)
I have been told that my mother’s family would celebrate Easter with an annual broadcast viewing of Cecil B DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.” I always thought that “Ben Hur” made for better Easter viewing, but that comparison is one I will have to explore at a later date, because I never did get around to watching either film this past Easter. Instead, I was hoping to finally watch 2016’s “Risen,” which I had heard solid things about from the Double Toasted audio review and only just now found the time to view. It sounded just like my kind of Christian Film, one that would tread softly on it’s own faith to make it’s story more accessible. It certainly begins as such, a sort of Roman-Era police procedural; the Roman officer, Clavius, trying to uncover the mystery of the empty tomb of some troublemaker named “Yeshua” (“Iesous” to the Greeks and eventually “Jesus” to the Romans). It’s a novel interpretation, but it makes for a better narrative lens than an Epic: This is a film that knows it’s budget and works as best as it can within it, which I found to be incredibly admirable given the bloated nature of the many sprawling films I love to devour. The opening “battle” between Clavius’ Romans and a band of rebellious Jews is barely a skirmish, with the twenty or so Romans methodically butchering the troublesome handful before too long, but what it lacks in scale it more than makes up for in its execution. It’s a brief, sharp bit of violence, but it feels accurate, as if enhanced by the smaller scale.
Same for the Crucifixion itself — No towering vistas atop hills for this poor Jesus, Yeshua is instead already dead by the time Clavius arrives to oversee the final, preformative execution. The stab to the side that Yeshua receives is shown to be a comparitve act of mercy to the dead man, as opposed to his crucified companions, who have their legs broken to ensure their demise before being dumped into a ditch. An understated Crucifixion, all things considered, but whether constrained by budget or not it grounds the film in history in a way that many other Christian Epics refuse to do. I particularly loved the small touch of the Roman executioner talking one of the condemned criminals through his own suffocation, easing him as one who has witnessed this sort of death many times would have.
It’s a reality that is maintained throughout the first two-thirds of the film, to my (admittedly secular) delight. The many nods to Jesus’ “miracles” are explained away by the exhausted Clavius, who just wants to do his job as competently as his superior, Pilate, expects. The many actors within this early half seem to be entirely practical in their motives, and I enjoyed it all, performances and politics alike. It helps to make the few moments of Spirituality shine all the brighter through characters such as Mary Madgelene; Her cascading emotions contrast beautifully with Clavius’s stoic professionalism, and especially with the cold transactional relationship he maintians with his own preferred Deities. He’s a man lacking in any spirituality, a deficiency well at odds with the visible joy that Yeshua brought to his followers. It’s the perfect sort of grounding for a character to experience profound character growth through, and my only complaint is that Clavius’ growth is missing it’s vital, final step.
By the last third of the film the “Christian” message has started to overpower the setting, as well as the story of Clavius. Miracles are not alluded to, but shown outright, and Clavius is just tagging along for the final stage of this ride, a spectator dumb to the story he has found himself in the final chapter of. That is, I suppose, par for the course in these sorts of films, and this last leg of his journey is by no means painful to witness, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed with Clavius’ final outcome. He has been portrayed from the start as a tired, violent man hoping to murder his way into a life of peace as a Roman politician, and it’s Yeshua himself who seems to put the final step in place for Clavius’ character development. Yet, by the end, Clavius comes out seeming aimless — Spiritually saved, perhaps, but lacking a clear direction to pursue peace next. The film ends with the man defeated, wandering off into the desert after renouncing his shattered, Roman world, but where is he wandering to? To a life of peace on a farm, as he once sought? To a forgotten love that the film never alluded to? We don’t know, and I dearly wish the film could have taken the time out from what is otherwise a very well-paced film to drop hints towards his ultimate, secular destination. But alas, his physical journey is irrevocably ancillary to that of Christ’s, as are all journeys undertaken by Christians, I suppose.