RISEN (2016) – Film Review

They could have called it God’s Not Dead. But then it would have been cheesy, corny, and other food-related adjectives. Risen is devoid of most cheese and corn: no caricatures, no wish-fulfillment fantasies, and no deceptive ethos-building. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a welcome addition to the faith-based genre.

As a reminder, I rate movies based on three criteria: potentially objectionable content (C), artistry (A), and my personal preference (P).

CONTENT (C): 10 out of 10
Believe it or not, faith-based films often have questionable content—not the typical sex, violence, and profanity, but something just as problematic. What they often do is jettison artistic nuance and subtlety and instead beat audiences over the head with a blatant message that, true or not, alienates skeptics and ends up preaching only to the choir. Such tactics are morally and artistically deficient.

In the case of Risen, no such overt message exists. The film is obviously sympathetic to Christianity, and religious thematic elements abound, but such is the nature of the story being told. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ are ripe events for existential exploration, and this movie does an excellent job (for the most part) of showing and not telling.

There’s even an appropriate amount of ambiguity. The last line spoken in the movie leaves one character’s spiritual state open to interpretation. There’s a potent pause in the middle of what he says, and as grammarians know, how you punctuate a sentence can radically change its meaning. So is the case here, and it’s a welcome way to end the movie. It reminds me of the ending to Inception; the audience is given room to contemplate.

It should be noted that there is a fair amount of violence and gore related to battle killings, the crucifixion of three individuals, and the inspection of a few bloated corpses. This isn’t anywhere as brutal as The Passion of the Christ, but it’s still intense.

ARTISTRY (A): 7 out of 10
Unlike your typical faith-based feature, Risen has some serious caliber talent both behind and in front of the camera, and it shows. The originality of the central plot—a manhunt for the body of Jesus—puts a fresh and engaging spin on a familiar tale. Except for a few minor cases (including the first speaking role in the film, unfortunately), the acting is stellar. An especially artistic aspect of the movie is its cinematography, which, if my memory serves, only gets more and more beautiful as the narrative progresses.

Some might say that the opening battle is sub-par, being that it’s a small scale set piece. But that’s just a Hollywood-conditioned mindset talking. (It was an automatic emotional response I initially had, in fact, so I’m pointing the finger at myself first.) The truth is, not every battle in human history resembled the Orc siege at Helm’s Deep, and that’s perfectly fine.

It could also be argued that the insertion of some material in the last third or so of the film (scenes taken from the latter part of the gospels) doesn’t contribute much to the narrative, and could in fact prove confusing for those not familiar with the gospel story. My wife compared it to a Marvel superhero movie, in that it includes a lot of references to plot points and characters that only Christians will catch and/or understand. These scenes almost make it feel like the movie is meandering without a specific goal in mind.

At the same time, if we consider that the narrative follows the character arc of someone whose entire worldview has been challenged to the core, the meandering nature of the final section of the movie could be thematically appropriate. A lot of it depends, I guess, on audience expectations.

It’s also nice to see that the followers of Jesus are living, breathing humans, not overly saintly and unrelatable (unlike, say, Charlton Heston’s Moses after the burning bush sequence in The Ten Commandments). The forcefulness of Peter’s character, in one scene especially, is deliciously potent.

PREFERENCE (P): 8 out of 10
It took me a little while to warm up to the movie, but once the manhunt was underway, my enjoyment level exponentially increased. I absolutely loved all the details related to the search for Christ’s body: the political maneuvering, the interrogations, tracking down the disciples, and so on. Riveting stuff, that. With the addition of a surprising amount of humor, I was hooked.

A lot of reviewers have complained about how the film shifts its focus at the midpoint—what students of screenwriting guru Syd Field call the point of no return. It’s an effectively dramatic scene, and it in no way lost my interest. I remained engaged as Clavius’ investigation took a more personal turn, leading him to even aid his former adversaries in a sequence that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Only when the back-to-back miracles started in the final fourth of the film did I start to lose interest. It felt disjointed and aimless (as I already mentioned above). Perhaps a second viewing would prove to be a more positive and cathartic experience.

Whatever the case, I still appreciated how the screenplay handled the interactions between key characters. The conversation between a Roman tribune and Jesus, for example, could have been so cheesy and/or ham-handed, but it better revealed the true nature and character of God in its quiet assurance.

I also liked how the film avoided a complete whitewashing of the cast, giving us (among other things) one of the most authentic looking Jesus figures thus far in a film. It’s a most welcome change from the Hollywood casting status quo.

All in all, I’ve turned into something of a fan boy of Risen. I can’t wait to watch it again and own it on DVD. It may not be the artistic masterpiece that The Passion of the Christ was, but it is more accessible, more entertaining, and (ultimately) more uplifting.

CAP grade: 83%