Friday, February 19th, Risen, a big budget movie with an all star cast opened domestically and was second in gross US revenues for the weekend. Depending on one's perspective it is (a) a brilliant retelling of the Easter story; (b) a flawed but compelling historical fiction retelling of the story or (c) nothing but Christian claptrap for the deluded. One thing is clear: Joseph Fiennes gives an Oscar caliber performance as Clavius, a Roman tribune directed by Pontius Pilate to find the body of Jesus which has disappeared from its tomb. Tom Felton of Harry Potter fame is his aide.
Let's dispose of (c) first. It is apparent from some reviews in some of the mainstream press (i.e. the New York Times) that some reviewers will not like Risen because to give Risen any benefit would challenge their world view. The Times reviewer likens it to Monty Python's Life of Bryan. On the other hand, religiously inclined reviewers may welcome it with open arms as Sr. Rose Pancetta did in the National Catholic Reporter.
To this reviewer, despite some important and annoying flaws, it is in many ways a triumph. It is of course an historical fiction in that although it is based upon the story as told in Scripture, it goes far beyond the details of Scripture and reports on something that Scripture does not report but is not an unreasonable projection: that when the body of Jesus was reported missing from the tomb both Roman and Jewish authorities would have tried to discover where it was. One piece of projected verisimilitude: the search would have been frantic because one of the concerns was that they find the body before it rotted beyond recognition.
And there is one important break through: two cameo appearances by the shroud of Jesus with an image on it that is obviously the Shroud of Turin. In one brief scene, Clavius is seen inspecting the image and then reaching out to touch it with his hand. The concept that a Roman tribune would have had possession of the shroud is contrary to both scripture and tradition which has Peter discovering the burial cloths in the tomb. Would he have left them lying around for the Romans to take possession?
There is one serious objection this reviewer has to the depiction of Mary Magdalene in the film. When Clavius learns that Mary Magdalene is the one who reported Jesus risen from the dead, he learns she is a prostitute and he goes into the Roman barracks and asks whether any of the soldiers know Mary Magdalene. At least half raise their hands.
The concept of Mary Magdalene as prostitute is disputed by many biblical scholars. Gnostic Christians regarded her as royalty. Some claim she was Christ's wife. While her true position may be clouded by the mists of time, it is doubtful by the time she became a follower of Jesus that she was an active prostitute. It is also doubtful, as some believe, that she fled to France with His son after the crucifixion. Really doubtful.
Scripture provides scant information about Jesus' activities in the forty days between the Resurrection and his claimed ascension into heaven. One of the most detailed is the account of his greeting the apostles from the shore when they were fishing. It is dramatized in Risen.
Christians, non-Christians, agnostics and atheists will find much to debate in the telling of the Resurrection story in Risen. But there is much to enjoy and savor too. Whatever your view of the Scripture story, put aside any skepticism for its hour and a half run time. Enjoy the trip and savor Joseph Fiennes bravura performance.
His anguish when coping with the Resurrection is the anguish of all humanity. He is us.
Risen Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucUbAAMEF8M
This is not a promo for my book "Quantum Christ" but if you are interested: