Year Released: 2016
Directed by: Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Peter Firth, Tom Felton, Cliff Curtis
(PG-13, 107 min.)
Genre: Drama, Action and Adventure
“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.” Clavius, Roman Tribune
Suddenly an old story is brand new again. Just by changing its perspective. Now instead of the insider’s view of the death and resurrection of Christ in the New Testament, we get the story from a Roman Tribune tasked with finding the body that has disappeared from its tomb.
The film also surprises us by editing out so much of the traditional Easter story. We have nothing about the last supper, Judas’s betrayal, the tortuous trek of Jesus or Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) carrying his cross to Calvary. Nor his final agonies.
Instead we open with a fierce and brutal battle between Roman soldiers and the rebellious Hebrews. Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), the Tribune in charge, shrewdly order his men to make a human bridge of their shields so they can kill the rebels who have taken the high ground on a rocky ridge. Yet Clavius tastes no glory in their bloody victory. The blood and death we see here replace the pain and gore so graphically recalled in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which we later infer must have been happening at the same time.
This substitution of the battle for the agony of Jesus’s death is a shrewd decision by the filmmakers. We get a taste of Roman cruelty, but the death of "the Nazarene," as Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) refers to Jesus, occurs off camera. The darkened sky and the ground tremors that mark his death are seen of little import to Clavius, who reins in his nervous steed as he heads to Calvary to dispose of the three crucified on the hill there. Making the death a mere background event fits with our skeptical age as we identify with the blood-weary soldier, Clavius.
Perhaps by omitting the traditional religious touchstones, those disdainful of the resurrection story temporarily at least, put down their defenses.
Just as modern art acts to shock us into a new perception by altering form, this film, by changing point of view, gives us a new reality as well. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Tom Stoppard deconstructs Shakespeare’s Hamlet by retelling the story from the point of view of “two blokes” who are sucked into the tragedy almost by chance. But while his presentation acts to demean the characters and events of Hamlet, Risen’s indirect retelling actually acts to heighten the impact of Christ and his disciples.
Another intriguing aspect of the Easter story is the exploration of the politics surrounding all this. As Prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate tries to keep the uneasy peace between Roman rulers and the subjugated Hebrews. In particular, the Jewish Pharisees who felt threatened by Jesus and wanted him dead, also fear that his followers might steal his body from its tomb. Thus, he would fulfill his promise of rising from the dead on the third day. A martyred Messiah would be even more annoying than a living breathing Jesus.
Pilate wants to keep everyone happy, especially since the Emperor is due to arrive in ten days time. Thus, he dispatches Clavius to seal the tomb and keep it guarded. But the guards drink wine and fall asleep and on the third day find the tomb empty.
Clavius must now find the “stolen” corpse before any rumors get started. He sorts through piles of abandoned corpses, and even digs up those already buried. It’s a dirty business. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz says, “Life is cheap here. The most persistent sound is the buzzing of flies over putrefying corpses.”
We have more realism in the portrayal of the disciples, who look nothing like the noble robed figures envisioned by Renaissance painters. Instead they are somewhat grubby looking ordinary guys coping with the death and sporadic reappearances of their leader as best they can.
Only Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) has that sense of grace or serenity we would expect, although some Bible scholars would argue that she is not the ex-prostitute they portray her as in the film, but another Mary, whom Jesus had healed of evil spirits and sicknesses.
Her posture and facial expression convey what her few words do not, and her acting is on that same high level as Joseph Fiennes, who is able to imbue his character with an inner nobility even as he follows the Roman way of blood and death.
One wishes James Caviezel might have reprised his role of Christ, here, because Cliff Curtis, who plays Jesus in this film, lacks his gravitas, instead “beaming like a contented surfer” and bestowing hugs upon everyone like some self-help guru.
But essentially the film is about Clavius, the nonbeliever whose world is rocked by what he sees. It is his struggle to reconcile what he cannot at first believe, to ferret out the truth that anchors Risen. Joseph Fiennes makes us believe, or at least want to.
The audience can almost taste the dust in the vast, arid landscape featured in Risen. The monochromatic grays are so bleak as to be shocking. Our Middle East recipe offers the perfect solution – moist, tart, and colorful. Enjoy this new version of the traditional Tabbouleh, which uses quinoa instead of bulgur, making your dish look and taste even better, not to mention healthy.
Or perhaps you may opt for another favorite to go with the Easter story, my mother’s famous Italian Easter Pizza.
2 cups water
1 cup quinoa
1 pinch salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 tomatoes, diced
1 cucumber, diced
2 bunches green onions, diced
2 carrots, grated
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped
In a saucepan bring water to a boil. Add quinoa and a pinch of salt. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature; fluff with a fork.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine olive oil, sea salt, lemon juice, tomatoes, cucumber, green onions, carrots and parsley. Stir in cooled quinoa.