Another Jesus film to watch during Lent

As I mentioned in my review of Son of God two years ago, I like to watch Jesus films during Lent. But a new Jesus film worth watching seemed unlikely in wake of the many disappointments I have experienced watching Christian films over the past two years (including Son of God). A record number of Christian and religious films hit our local theaters during that time (e.g., Exodus, Noah, Heaven Is for Real, God’s Not Dead), and they have had huge box office success in the United States. But in my opinion that success was undeserved, as all of those films disappointed me. And the only Jesus film I have seen in a theater during the past few years that was worth watching was Last Days in the Desert, which, for whatever reasons, has yet to be released (I understand it’s coming in May).

Risen came as a pleasant surprise. Despite its flaws, I found it almost refreshing and actually quite enjoyable.

So I had very low expectations when walking into the theater to watch the new Jesus film, Risen, which, while very popular in the United States, has received only mediocre reviews from critics. Those low expectations sank further after watching a trailer for God’s Not Dead 2, which looks awful. The result was that Risen came as a pleasant surprise. Despite its flaws, I found it almost refreshing and actually quite enjoyable.

Directed (and cowritten) by Kevin Reynolds, Risen starts where most Jesus films end: at the crucifixion. Pilate (played very well by Peter Firth) assigns his closest aide, a tribune by the name of Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), to make sure that order is maintained after Jesus’ crucifixion and that the body is appropriately buried (with guards to prevent an inconvenient theft of the body by the madman’s followers). Lucius (Tom Felton), a young centurion, is assigned to assist Clavius.

Clavius arrives at the site of the crucifixion just after Jesus dies. He is moved by the weeping women in the crowd and allows Joseph of Arimathea, accompanied by guards, to look after Jesus’ burial. Horror of horrors, Jesus’ body disappears anyway, sending Clavius and Lucius on a unique kind of manhunt that will take about half of the film. I trust it is not a huge spoiler to reveal that Clavius does eventually find Jesus and, wonder of wonders, he seems very much alive (before suddenly disappearing again). Not knowing what to make of this, Clavius decides to follow the 11 apostles as they go to look for Jesus in Galilee.

Lucius, however, is not impressed and reports the infraction to Pilate, who is even less impressed. Another manhunt ensues. The ending of Risen will surprise no one who is familiar with the gospel stories. Most of the film critics whose reviews I read are apparently not familiar with those stories, because they indicate that Risen simply follows the end of the gospel of Matthew. In fact, Risen is a blend of all the gospel accounts and actually features as much of John’s gospel as Matthew’s.

The attempt to be faithful to the gospel accounts is, however, one of the film’s flaws (in my opinion), as it limits opportunities to connect with, and say something meaningful to, a 21st-century audience. Many Christians will welcome this faithfulness to Scripture and the sensitivity of the filmmakers, but others will write off the last half of the film as a naive fairytale that can’t be taken seriously. A number of critics mention that the result is a film that’s preaching to the choir and won’t convert anyone. Despite this flaw, I was actually impressed by the lack of sensationalism surrounding the risen Jesus and the understated nature of the resurrection. I didn’t feel that Risen was really trying to preach to anyone, and this is one of the film’s strengths.

Risen has other strengths, such as the actor who plays Jesus. Cliff Curtis (of Maori descent) is the most realistic-looking Jesus (called Yeshua in Risen) I have ever seen, though I wasn’t inspired by the traditional overly gentle way Jesus behaves in the film (as he did in Son of God). Another strength of the film is the story of Clavius and the sympathetic and nuanced way that Fiennes portrays him. The cinematography and score are also well done.

Perhaps because I know the background story so well, I didn’t find Risen’s plot riveting, but I felt entertained throughout and I did find a few of the scenes both inspiring and thought-provoking, which was not the case in Son of God. So while Risen is no great Jesus film, it is also not something to be ashamed of, and if you’re looking for a Jesus film to watch during Lent, I would encourage you to give it a look.


Risen is rated PG-13 for biblical violence and some disturbing images.