Imagine you are a Roman centurion stationed in Judea, tasked with keeping the zealots in line. They were a group of fanatical religious Jews intent on liberating themselves from Roman influence. It does not take much for them to riot, attack Romans in the street, or plan larger-scale battles. Each year, over a hundred thousand people come to Jerusalem for the Passover. Each year, Governor Pilate leaves his palace in Caesarea and comes to Jerusalem, along with King Herod, to maintain a diplomatic and military presence, to avert trouble.
But this year is different. Only days after welcoming the new Messiah into the city on the back of a donkey (perhaps even halting or blocking the arrival of troops in the process), the crowd wants his blood. The Sanhedrin screams for Pilate to put him to death, claiming he threatens Rome. Pilate’s heavy-handed treatment of the Jews forces his hand, because Emperor Tiberius has told him on the pain of death to avoid further riots. He disowns it, and says, “Crucify him.”
For most men, that is where the story ends… but the Messiah’s continues. Now, imagine that as a centurion, you are given the task of finishing the Messiah off, ensuring his body remains safely in the tomb, and then, when your tribunes go missing and you find the rock that once sat over the entrance of the tomb a good seven feet away on the ground, with finding him again. You are a logical man. The answers you get do not match the evidence. So you start digging… and come face to face with a man you put to death… what then? How do you reconcile truth and belief? What can you trust, your eyes or your heart?
Risen harkens back to an older age in Hollywood, where Biblical epics were told through the eyes of fictional bystanders rather than believers and disciples. Clavius has no believer beside him to guide the way; he must find “the truth” on his own. His Pilate is a cynic, weary of murdering people, annoyed by constant demands on his time and justice, who looks upon Clavius as a son. In a personal moment, they share their desires for the future – men who desire an end to violence in favor of peace… but neither will have it. (Historically, Pilate disappears after Tiberius recalls him to Rome a few years later to account for mass-slaughtering Samaritans; Clavius… well, he must make his own journey forward.)
I have two nitpicks, and both are minor; the only deviation from the Bible is in believing the myth about Mary Magdalene being a prostitute is true (it’s a major plot point); the only glaring historical inaccuracy is that Emperor Tiberius intends to visit and is arriving at the end of the story. Tiberius never came to Judea; to the Romans, Judea was a dog-hole full of rioters. For those queasy about violence, there is some but not a lot – a battle scene opens the film. Clavius comes in at the end of the crucifixion, so the Messiah is already dead; but we hear the Romans breaking the thieves’ legs. In their quest to find the body, they dig through decomposing corpses and finally choose a bloated corpse to pass off as Christ. The camera tries not to linger too long.
Oh, a final note – Mars is the God of War, Destruction, and Masculinity. The film doesn’t explain that, but it is referenced a few times (“Which God do you pray to?” Pilate asks. It’s Mars, and Pilate smiles knowingly).
It’s a good film, well made, respectful of history and Biblical events, without being preachy. I hope you’ll support it by going to see it.
I wrote a more traditional review here.