I'll be honest, I've grown increasingly wary of Christian films over the years. While Christian music is often in the same boat (particularly mainstream CCM), it just isn't enough to have a good message with good intentions to create good art with a focus on ministry. It's not an easy feat to package up the gospel message believably or naturally in a two-hour-or-less packaging, but many Christian films make the attempt, with mixed (and sometimes disastrous) results. It ends up where Christian films really only cater to Christian audiences who don't normally watch or enjoy movies. But with the success of films like Fireproof, Facing The Giants and Courageous, the Christian film studios have bigger budgets to hire professional directors and more notable casts while having a bigger production quality. And with greater talent involved, the end product can be stronger.
My two biggest beefs with Christian filmmaking are acting and script. Just from watching most trailers for these films (take War Room, for example), you can see how poor and rigid and forced the acting is, with dialog coming out of their mouths that no one would really ever say in real life. The ministry agenda of the films also often makes them feel unrealistic and skewed. I've often felt like movies that don't have a specific bias towards soul-winning have a greater impact for me. I can walk away from watching a movie like Signs or even Lady In The Water and The Empire Strikes Back and have gleaned more about faith and purpose and spiritual warfare than anything I might find on a Christian bookstore shelf. However, another film that I always thought had an interesting view of faith was 2002's The Count of Monte Cristo, and this year's Risen just happens to be helmed by that film's director, Kevin Reynolds.
The Christian film typically works best in the Biblical setting. What I love about the approach that Risen takes is that it tells the story of Jesus and His death and resurrection from the eyes of a Roman tribune who has been tasked by Pontius Pilate to find out what happened to Jesus' body after the resurrection. And what Reynolds and his team do is show the seeds being planted in this tribune's life as he watches Jesus die during the crucifixion and then witness some truly miraculous things as he interviews witnesses and investigates the resurrection firsthand. Having Joseph Fiennes as the Roman tribune Clavius is a smart move, too. Only a convincing, seasoned actor could pull off this role with the right emotion and make it believable. Clavius makes quite a transformation from the beginning of the film to the end and Fiennes stands out as being the strongest thing in the make-up of Risen. The movie aims for a bigger, more epic feel, but there are aspects of it and moments where it just feels like an indie film with delusions of grandeur, but we know Reynolds has experience. There's nothing amateur about Reynolds' career. The Count of Monte Cristo was a fantastic production that still plays well today, and Risen is a better film because of Reynolds' experience. I was also surprised to realize that Cliff Curtis plays Jesus (only referred to as "Yeshua" here). He's an accomplished actor and I probably never would have thought of him for the role of Christ, but he actually adds quite a bit to the role. His interactions with Fiennes are also some of the best in the film. (However, to provide an example of what I mean by the size and scope of the film being small at times, following the gruesome portrayal of Jesus' crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ, in comparison, the depiction of Jesus on the cross here is distractingly mild. I wouldn't be surprised if his disfigurement was a little less than what was in The Passion, but it was most certainly more than the minimalistic approach that Risen takes. But I digress...)
One of my favorite aspects of Risen is in the depiction of the 11 remaining apostles. They have that excitement and kindness you see in true believers, but they also have their own personalities and quirks. It's also awesome to just witness their camaraderie depicted on film. They're clearly a brotherhood and Risen makes this very tangible. It really added a lot of heart to the story. It's also important to mention that the film takes plenty of artistic liberties to present this story as a little more like a "what-if" story that isn't straight out of the pages of the Bible--but that doesn't mean it doesn't hold a lot of truth. There's a great deal of care that has been taken to keep it true enough to scriptures, while adding in parts to the tale that aren't completely accurate. But there's something about witnessing Clavius' journey of faith that is truly moving. Curtis plays Jesus with a lot of heart as well, and when we see Clavius struggling with accepting the truth of Jesus' divinity, forcing him to confront and question what he previously believed to be true, it's relatable and stirring. And actor Stephen Hagan's portrayal of Bartholomew is a lot of fun. The scene where he's interrogated by Clavius is a wonderful depiction of Christianity. He really made the apostle come alive.
The content of the movie is surprisingly rough. I suppose they tried to make it grittier to make it more realistic, but it does get kind of brutal at times. The movie opens with the Romans battling the zealots, and while it's not particularly graphic, it is very violent and a little bloody (but not gory). The crucifixion of Jesus and the thieves is also pretty rough, but as I mentioned earlier, it's definitely tamer than a film like The Passion of the Christ. Then, later, when Clavius launches his investigation, we see quite a few corpses with varying amounts of blood and in varying states of decay. One of the most gruesome is later in the film when he presents a body to Pilate. It has gory nail holes on the feet and wrists and areas of skin missing. Overall, it's not a light film by any means.
Risen isn't a perfect film, but it's a great depiction of a journey of faith and an inspiring illustration of the apostles who walked with Jesus. Kevin Reynolds and his team created a movie that serves as a great addition to the Easter season tradition. It's definitely lighter than The Passion of the Christ, but it's still a rather intense movie that won't be for the entire family. Risen is the best Christian and faith film I've seen in years.
- John DiBiase (reviewed: 6/15/16)
Blu-Ray Special Features Review
Risen arrives on Blu-Ray in a 2-disc Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack with a digital copy and also on DVD and separately in the new 4K Ultra HD format (which, for the record, only plays on select players, and it does not work on the PS3 or PS4). The film's picture is bright and vibrant and the disc offers the following bonus features, including a Feature Commentary with Patrick and Paul Aiello...
Deleted Scenes (4:24) There are 5 deleted scenes with a Play All option. In the first scene, Clavius and his troops find Judas hanging (we just see his feet dangling). Next is Clavius' interrogation with someone who is glad Jesus is dead. The third scene shows Clavius' investigation taking him to a tomb where we see a gruesome, decomposing body. Next, Lucius goes to see Pilate after Clavius leaves to follow the risen Yeshua. Lastly, we see Clavius and Simon talking around a campfire.
The Mystery of the Resurrection: Making Risen (11:14) - This behind-the-scenes featurette talks about the film being the first to offer a detective story centered around the mystery of Jesus' risen--and missing--body. Joseph Fiennes talks about his interest in the role and how great the apostles were and fun to be around--on and off the screen.
Creating A.D. Jerusalem (9:29) - Reynolds and his team filmed Jerusalem in Malta and Spain. They even talk about how he had shot portions of The Count of Monte Cristo in Malta and so he knew it'd be great to film Risen there. This covers shooting there, recreating the city and adapting the buildings there.
The Battle of the Zealots Deconstructed (5:03) covers the setup of the fight and how they actually filmed it last (of all the scenes).
Script to Screen (3:57) is a promo that shows parts of the trailer and shows some of the crew talking about the story and how it's "scripturally harmonious."
- John DiBiase, (reviewed: 6/15/16)
Parental Guide: Brief Summary of Content
Sex/Nudity: When Clavius asks a group of soldiers who know Mary Magdelene, most of them slowly raise their hand (hinting that they know her as being a prostitute)
Alcohol/Drugs: We see two guards drinking outside Jesus' tomb. We later hear they were drunk. Clavius finds the container and tastes its contents before spitting it out; We see one of these soldiers drinking in a pub later.
Blood/Gore: We see blood on Clavius's face; We see blood on soldiers and zealots during their fight. There's also blood seen on the soldiers' swords; Clavius removes a captive's helmet to question him and we see blood all over the man's face and shoulders; We see Jesus and the thieves crucified with varying degrees of blood on them; There's some blood when a Roman soldier pierce's Jesus' side with a spear; We briefly see the Romans dumping the thieves' dead bodies into a pile of other dead bodies that are decaying with flies all around; We briefly see blood on Jesus' side; We see a closeup of Jesus' dead and bloody face with his eyes frozen open. We then see this image a couple times again later; A corpse is shown with a sewn-up scar from his chin to the top of his head on the side of his face. It's rather gross; Clavius has his men dig up dead bodies. We briefly see some corpses in the ground with wounds. Clavius later walks by more dead bodies laid out with some being bloody; Clavius brings a corpse to Pilate and it's very gruesome looking. It has bloody holes in its hands and feet and its skin is discolored and deformed. There also appears to be portions of skin missing; We see Jesus' scars on his wrists and side; Startled, Clavius slices at a man, cutting his leg. We see some blood and later see the cut a couple more times; We see a deformed leper with gross, bubbly skin.
Violence: The zealots and Romans fight in an elaborate battle, with many of them being stabbed and sliced. The zealots also throw rocks at the soldiers and roll boulders down the hill toward them; Clavius interrogates a zealot and throws his helmet to the side. He then plunges his sword into him and pushes him over; An earthquake cracks nearby buildings and causes people to fall over; We see Jesus and the thieves crucified; Roman soldiers strike and break the legs of the thieves. One then pierces Jesus' side. We watch as the thieves die and then the Roman's push over the crosses so they crash to the ground; We briefly see the Romans dumping the thieves' dead bodies into a pile of other dead bodies that are decaying with flies all around; A corpse is shown with a sewn-up scar from his chin to the top of his head on the side of his face. He's then wrapped up in a cloth and burned on a funeral pyre; Clavius has his men dig up dead bodies. We briefly see some corpses in the ground with wounds. Clavius later walks by more dead bodies laid out with some being bloody; Soldiers chase Mary Magdalene and she kicks one of them away; Clavius brings a corpse to Pilate and it's very gruesome looking. It has bloody holes in its hands and feet and its skin is discolored and deformed. There also appears to be portions of skin missing; Clavius grabs an informant by the collar and then tosses him aside. We then see Clavius kick open a door; Startled, Clavius slices at a man, cutting his leg; Soldiers chase the apostles and Lucius tries to attack Clavius who counterattacks to stop him and then lets him go; Some people beat and hit a leper.
** Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's rating.