The Tribune: a Review of “Risen”

Attention Californians: TCT’s founding editor-in-chief, Robert Royal, is in the Golden State. Here’s Bob’s schedule: Tonight (Monday February 22) at 6:30 PM, he’ll speak at the University of Santa Barbara, Catholic Chaplaincy, St. Mark’s University Parish: 6550 Picasso Road, Isla Vista, CA 93117 (Tel. 805-968-1078); and tomorrow, February 23 at 4:00 PM. Bob will speak at the Salvatori Center at Claremont McKenna College. (See the flyer at the end of Mr. Miner’s column.)

Risen is unlike any Biblical “epic” you’ve ever seen.

For one thing, there’s nothing really epic about it – except the story it tells. If you’ve seen King of Kings or The Greatest Story Ever Told, let alone Ben-Hur, you know what an epic looks like – and sounds like: it looks Big (a cast of thousands) and it sounds Loud (a soaring score). Risen is smaller and quieter.

But this doesn’t mean Risen isn’t remarkable. So I’ll remark.

It begins grandly enough, with Romans doing what they did so well: conquering. And the sword-and-sandals part of the movie is very good. One is glad never to have seen the tips of spears wielded by the Tenth Legion. Scenes in the desert (Spain and Malta stand in for ancient Israel) are always grand.

But when the legion returns to Jerusalem, the film’s modest budget shows, especially in exterior shots, which director Kevin Reynolds wisely keeps to a minimum. Mr. Reynolds oddly saves an epic “money shot” for the film’s tail end, as the Emperor Tiberius’ barges approach the holy city – all to frame Pilate’s quip (which a number of films have used versions of) that this new Christian cult will soon be forgotten.

But Mr. Reynolds has crafted a decent movie out of the resources he had: a crisp script by him and Paul Aiello and a generally fine cast, led by Joseph Fiennes as Clavius, a tribune of the Tenth, who is more than just a superb soldier. He’s also something of a sleuth.

Pilate charges him with wrapping up the execution of a certain troublemaker from Nazareth, which Clavius does with dispatch. But when the body of the deceased man – crucified between two thieves – disappears, the governor puts the tribune on the case. (Pilate is played superbly by Peter Firth.) Clavius becomes for a time a first-rate detective, interviewing witnesses who’ve been heard repeating what the tribune takes to be a ludicrous rumor that this crucified man, called Yeshua, has risen from the dead.

Mr. Fiennes is ideal for this sort of role, because his eyes project intelligence as well as any actor in the business. (Think of him as the Bard in Shakespeare in Love.) Fiennes, a Catholic, recently met Pope Francis, whom he describes as “spiritually connected and deeply authentic,” and that might be said of the actor too. (Fiennes is on a spiritual roll of sorts, having recently completed a film, The Last Run [changed to On Wings of Eagles], an unofficial sequel to Chariots of Fire, following on with the story begun in that earlier film of the Scot middle-distance runner and missionary Eric Liddell.) Having gone to gladiator school (no, really) prior to filming Risen, Fiennes also has the physicality – and thus the menacing presence – that makes you believe he’ll get to the bottom of this missing-body nonsense, quickly and efficiently.

Joseph Fiennes as the tribune
Joseph Fiennes as the tribune

Trouble is, Clavius can’t find the body of Yeshua. Two of those he interviews, a prostitute named Mary (the Argentinean actress Maria Botto) and one of the eleven surviving followers of Yeshua, Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan), aren’t much help, because, as Clavius remarks: “Yahweh deranges them.” So he decides to exhume the body of another crucified man, which he delivers to Pilate so the governor can give a good report to Tiberius and the Sanhedrin can claim the Resurrection never happened.

There are some very nice details, as when – having spent a day examining corpses – Clavius gets the stink of death off of his hands only by rubbing them in a rosemary bush he keeps on a table in his rooms. Or when he sticks his head into a legion barracks and asks his soldiers if any of them know the woman called Mary Magdalene: cautious glances are exchanged before nearly every legionnaire raises his hand.

The conceit of the film, you’ll have gathered, is that – unlike other movies about the life of our Lord – Risen begins with the Crucifixion and follows the forensic quest of a skeptic out to solve a crime, ostensibly the grandest of grand larcenies. What Clavius finds, of course, is rather more than he bargained for.

Alas, the police procedural part ends quickly, for a reason I won’t reveal, and then we’re back in the desert.

What’s unusual about the film is Christ. As portrayed by Māori New Zealander Cliff Curtis (a lookalike for the image on the Shroud of Turin), Yeshua is an unfamiliarly physical presence. To be sure, Jim Caviezel’s gritty Jesus (The Passion of the Christ) was physical, although in a vastly different way, as was the more ethereal Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth. The Yeshua of Risen is joyful in a way I’ve not seen, except maybe in movies about Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s – he’s a wide-eyed man-hugger, almost a hippie, guru-like, but – forgive me for saying it – not especially Christ-like.

There are marvelous scenes of the fellowship of the Apostles, and perhaps the most memorable characteristic of Risen is its humanity, which also comes through in the interactions of legionnaires, and, of course, in the warm and smiling Son of God Himself. All-too-human, perhaps.

Rich Peluso of Affirm Films, the production company behind Risen, has described the movie as not so much Biblically based as “Scripturally harmonious,” and Mr. Fiennes has spoken of the film as neither traditionalist nor revisionist, and that’s all fine. So why did I leave the film thinking that something was missing?

Many of the right elements are there, including – principally through the lips of Bartholomew and Simon Peter, played with a kind of lovable combustibility by Stewart Scudamore – the proclamation of Yeshua’s divinity.

What’s missing is the awe that truth should inspire.

Risen is rated PG-13, presumably for the film’s early battle sequence – and for its depiction of the Crucifixion. With Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter oeuvre) as a young aide to Clavius, Antonio Gil as Joseph of Arimathea, and Stephen Greif as Caiaphas.



Click to expand the flyer

Brad Miner

Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His new book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. The Compleat Gentleman, is available on audio.

  • Dominic

    Brad, I agree. I really liked the movie: a solid A- or maybe even an A. Yet is wasn’t great, and by that I’m not complaining of its “non-epicality.” It didn’t move me emotionally as did The Passion of the Christ or even The Robe. But, I still liked the movie and would strongly recommend it.

    I, too, started where you are on Curtis as Jesus. He certainly didn’t fulfill my mental image at the Crucifixion. But as you note, this movie is really about after the Crucifixion. As I’ve reflected, I think this “Jesus” fit quite well the aim and theme of the movie. Given that God is beyond anything we can describe or understand, this is merely a facet of Christ in the director’s eyes.

    I found the movie actually quite personal and modest. It’s well worth seeing.

    • Michael

      I have to admit that I saw a wonderful depiction of Jesus. When Clavius joins him, it is Jesus who reaches out to Calvius. When Clavius doesn’t know what to say, Jesus reads his heart and that puts Clavius completely at ease. While this is not Jesus as divine I think it shows Jesus stepping out to meet us where we are in our human estate and opening up a path to start communicating with Him. While a small part of the film, I found this to be very profound.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    You gave the perfect summation. The awe that truth should inspire is missing. Didn’t see the film likely won’t. Of course they couldn’t resist a male whore joke regarding Mary Magdalene that outrageously depicts her as an extremely active prostitute. After the Resurrection? The 10th Legion was Rome’s best commanded by Vespasian already acknowledge by many Romans as emperor following the death of Nero who appointed him to destroy the Jewish nation. That would have been an interesting dimension. I believe the reference was to Vespasian and his 10th Legion entering the Jerusalem when Christ said where the eagles gather there will lay the corpse, the eagles the Roman standards the corpse the Nation. The depiction of Yeshua as a hippy like guru would be beyond tolerance. More contemporary bilge water. Thanks for the warning.

    • Dave Fladlien

      I very much agree. I don’t know anything about the movie and not a lot about the history either, but any depiction of Jesus as a hippy is ludicrous, and I don’t know how St. Mary of Magdala ever got stuck with being called a prostitute. Bl. Pope Paul VI convened a group of scripture scholars to look into that, and as I recall, while they decided they couldn’t be totally certain, they decided that it was highly unlikely that she was the same woman who came to Jesus at the home of Simon, that is, the repentant prostitute.

      Mary of Magdala was probably a wealthy woman from the wealthy fishing metropolis of Magdala, and Jesus can only be described as quite sophisticated, anything but a hippy.

  • This is the first review I’ve seen that was somewhat positive on the film. I’ve seen reviews that thought it was horrible. I did so want this to be a great movie. Alas, I guess not.

  • Diane

    I saw it and I liked it. I think you gave away most of it in this article. I like the take on it, because you can imagine how desperate they would be to find the body of Jesus and you can imagine that the man or men in charge of this task would have some conversion, when they didn’t find Him.

  • olhg1

    The movie might seem anti-climactic (we’re in Lent leading to the memorial crescendo of Good Friday and Easter), but anytime a worthwhile anything about Jesus is produced by the Hollywood culture, I’ll gladly forego my traditionalism.

    • Bobo Fett

      Amen to that. Some people just have to have every one of their faith itches scratched when they go see a faith based film. We should be happy they make the movies and support them when they’re pretty darn good as this one is.

  • Craig Payne

    Someone should make a list of the best Christian films that are not made AS Christian films. For example:

    Chariots of Fire
    Tender Mercies
    Of Gods and Men
    The Mission
    Going My Way
    Maybe Groundhog Day?

    And so on.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      The Mission wonderfully acted based on true events unforgettable music by Ennio Morricone is the winner in my estimate.

      • Chris C.

        It is a terrific movie and a favorite. I have read however that no armed insurrection led by Jesuit priests ever actually occurred however, as depicted in the movie.

        • Bobo Fett

          The Mission was excellent. Really showed the incredible zeal and dedication of those Catholic missionaries in that time. Good movie. Hard to watch the end though.

    • Francis Miller

      Groundhog Day is a great movie, I think. It seems to me to be a essay on Purgatory a la CS Lewis.

      • Bill

        Maybe Groundhog Day?

        • Craig Payne

          Babe, I got you, babe….

    • Bill

      Maybe Groundhog Day.

    • Chris C.

      Becket and Man for All Seasons would also be at the top of the list. Excellent movies about historical figures with drama and terrific acting.

    • Marie Eleanor

      May I add: Through the Shadowlands with Joss Ackland and Clare Bloom.

      • Craig Payne

        And “Shadowlands,” with Anthony Hopkins.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Just another note Vespasian commanding the 10th Legion was accompanied by his son Titus who commanded another legion and was second in command. Vespasian did not persecute Christians as did his predecessor Nero. It was Vespasian’s youngest son Domitian who as emperor resumed the persecution and exiled the Apostle John to Patmos. The connection of the actual destroyers of the Jewish Nation not themselves turning against Christians except for Domitian who did not participate is an interesting historical side note to the narrative. During the early stage of the Jewish rebellion before the arrival of Vespasian and Titus the Jewish rebels annihilated Rome’s 12th Legion and slaughtered the Jerusalem Roman garrison, the presumed Roman soldiers the film inaccurately depicts as interviewed by the Tribune and source of the men’s whore joke regarding Mary Magdalene. Unless of course the Tribune had interviewed their ghosts.

  • grump

    For me the last few minutes of Ben-Hur will never be surpassed. Charlton Heston walking up the stairs to embrace his healed mother and sister surrounded by the most moving music ever scored for film. Christ’s face is never shown in Ben-Hur but His magnificent Presence was never more poignantly depicted in the movies.

    • ThirstforTruth

      I don’t think Jesus has ever been adequately portrayed in film…nor can He as they
      either show Him as too human and when they attempt His Divinity, He comes across as wimpy and effete. Just not possible for all the obvious reasons. He is the Son of God….and there is only one Risen Lord.

      • Francis Miller

        There is a real difficulty in representing Jesus in film because we cannot properly imagine the divine life (1Cor 2:6-10). Jim Caviezel’s portrayal left many of us moved in a way that cannot be forgotten, others ‘too much blood but otherwise ok.’ I look forward to seeing this movie and think we need to strive to capture some small part of the risen Lord because it is an ennobling effort like building the cathedrals of Europe.

        • Bobo Fett

          It may be nigh impossible to capture the character of Jesus. Gibson gave his “Jesus” admittedly few lines and so much blood and makeup plus the veil of the language barrier — a brilliant device that kept the character Jesus a little…unattainable — ala Latin at Mass keeps the Mass timeless and “vertical” for lack of a better word.

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            Really important insight into the transcendence of the divine nature of Christ revealed to us in human nature yet drawing us further into the depth of the mystery.

  • Rick

    I’m waiting for someone to make a movie about Muhammad. The sleeper cells (and they’re here) in the U.S would crawl out from under the woodwork.

    • ThirstforTruth

      Theo Van Gogh tried that a few years ago and was murdered as a result.
      I doubt too many Hollywood types want to become martyrs for “the cause”
      of Islam!

  • Jay Franklin

    What kind of affectatious human being poses with dark glasses for a portrait? Why should we read what he writes?

    • Brad Miner

      Someone with chronic migraines.

      • Dave Fladlien

        I’m very light sensitive; have been almost all my life. I wear dark glasses a lot too. You have my sincere sympathy, Brad. It isn’t the end of the world but it isn’t real easy to live with either.

  • Kathy

    My suggestion would be to see the movie for yourself and make your own conclusions. In our local paper, the movie only received 2 stars. The writer suggested that Jesus needs to “call His agent” because He was upstaged by Clavius. Very funny. To my husband and I, Risen was all that we hoped it would be – intriguing, fast moving, and above all, immersion into a story that we love with all our hearts. The Jesus character, to me, was a much improved version of some similar movies where he has spoken almost too other-worldly. If we can ever really ‘relate’ to Jesus, should we not first see and love His humanity? If we are to see Jesus in our fellow man, shouldn’t we get to know Him as our fellow man as well as our Lord and Savior?

  • Barbara Albanese

    Watching the movie through the prism of a literary novel, I felt it was a superb film. My only criticism was the Ascension–Jesus disappears in a glow of sunlight instead of rising, as is taught in the Apostle’s Creed. We even have a holy day of obligation, and a decade of the rosary for it. The same thing was done by Roma Downey–who, I believe, is Catholic, and her husband. Her’s was worse. She had Jesus disappear in a puff of smoke.
    Thank you for a wonderful review.

  • Twinkle5

    Truth SHOULD inspire awe. What a great line, and so missing in our culture. This is why I choose to watch ” The Journey Home” on EWTN because we are constantly shown what awe looks like in people who actively seek out their salvation when given a taste of the truth.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    More glaring historical inaccuracies of the film. Tiberius was emperor 14-37 AD not during the presence of Rome’s 10th Legion [reference to Tiberius’ barges landing to invade Jewish Nation]. Tiberius had long removed Pilate from Judea 37 AD. At the time of the Jewish rebellion 66 AD Nero was emperor as said. The 10th and 5th Legions arrived from Libya at Caesarea 67 AD under the command of Vespasian. This was the first ever presence of the 10th in the Jewish Nation. The account of Clavius Tribune of the 10th Legion who according to the film arrived in Jerusalem apparently at the aftermath of the Jewish rebellion under orders from Pilate to investigate the Jeshua issue is not at all credible because Florus, then Julianus were successive procurators at the time. At any rate I submit this if the editors decide it is worth posting simply as a matter of historicity.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Guess I got the plot wrong Clavius’ interview of Roman garrison was according to the script during 40 days after Jesus’ crucifixion at request of Pilate which at least there would be chronologically correct. Obviously a novel with freedom to manipulate historical fact I may after all view it.

    • John Marochi


  • Laura light

    Just another Protestant depiction of Christ the man, leaving out Christ the Devine….I think that’s a pretty big hole in the story….no thanks.

  • Alexandra_kirschmitt

    ” The Yeshua of Risen is joyful in a way I’ve not seen, except maybe in movies about Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s – he’s a wide-eyed man hugger, almost a hippie, guru-like, but – forgive me for saying it – not especially Christ-like.”

    Thanks for telling me, I’ll not watch it for sure.

  • William Lettich

    Which Mary, follower of Jesus, was a prostitute?

  • Rosemary58

    We are looking forward to seeing “Risen”, including a couple of my grown children. The story has an interesting angle. But poor Mary Magdalene! She had suffered with seven demons. What they were is not known but for some reason she always gets pegged as a prostitute.

  • John Marochi

    The pope is “spiritually connected and authentic?” Give me a break. This movie looks as though it will make the Novus Ordo “church” very happy.

  • John Marochi

    What, you intend to CENSER me??????

  • Bobo Fett

    I loved the movie. We are going again. Fiennes did a great job.

  • Barrysullivan1

    I have been described “as being a little right of JP II” and I loved the movie. Seeing this Passion and Resurection depiction made me even more thankful for my Catholic Faith and what Our Lord did for us all. It was definitely a different depiction of the events yet not disrespectful or detracting from the Truth.

  • James Ignatius

    I would expect Catholic reviewers of this movie to note it completely omitted the Blessed Mother from the story.

    • Brad Miner

      But that’s not true. She is shown in the Crucifixion scenes.

      • James Ignatius

        She would certainly been with the disciples when they were in Jerusalem during the appearances and the film nearly ignores her.

  • RoscoeBonifitucci

    Methinks the author has spent a wee too much time rubbing elbows with Hollyweird types. This is a good movie that is superb for Lent that might be good for a date night: “RISEN”. A little rough for the kids, but the historical accuracy and quality of portraying the time of Christ’s crucifixion is stellar. Every Christian should experience it to help understand the time of our Lord, God and Savior.

    • Brad Miner

      Meekness the author has no acquaintances in Hollywood.

  • bolaris101

    Thank you for the thoughtful review. I loved the movie. As to whether the portrayal was suitably “Christ-like” I have to take exception. The scene where Yeshua sits on the hillside with the tribune who actually gave the order for his death (the final spear thrust at the crucifixion), yet looks lovingly into his soul and seeks to assuage his fears is very much like the Jesus I experience (on my better days), and to what extent that resembles some contemporary expectation of hippie-like guru is beside the point. This is a portrait of a personal, loving Being directly involved in the life of each and every soul struggling to understand Him and His message, even that of a violent, cynical Roman tribune. Seems as “Christ-like” as we could ever hope to see.