risen_posterI struggle with faith-based or “Christian” movies. They mean well. Faith-based films provide an alternative for Christians who don’t want to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,  But if the movie’s goal is to reach a larger audience and make people think deeply about the gospel and matters of faith … well, frankly most Christian movies fall short.

Risen hits theaters this weekend, and it is the latest faith-based movie. Joseph Fiennes stars and Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood, the Count of Monte Cristo) directed. The story centers on a Roman soldier (Fiennes) who has been charged by Pilate (Peter Firth) to find the missing body of Jesus and squelch the rumors of a resurrection.

So does Risen … er, rise to the occasion … or does it simply get a gold star for effort?

Yes. On both counts.

The first half of the movie is great. We see the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ from a non-believer’s viewpoint.  As the Roman tribune leads the investigation at the tomb, digs through corpses, and questions some of Yeshua’s followers, we’re exposed to the proofs of the resurrection. The story is well executed. It neither preaches nor feels like we’re sitting in an apologetics class.

The movie makes a marked turn, though, when the tribune actually sees the resurrected Jesus. [Oops. Forgot to say SPOILER ALERT. Jesus does rise from the dead.] The soldier knows what he’d seen earlier—a very dead man—but now he sees Yeshua alive, and he struggles with what to believe. So far, so good.  But then the tribune immediately abandons everything and spends the rest of the movie hanging out with the 11 disciples.

The second half of the movie bugged me for two reasons.

  1. The historical, biblical factor. I realize a writer has to take some creative license in adding a fictitious character to a historical account, but this writer ignored key elements. Fior example, the disciples hid in fear, but when the Roman tribune shows up, he’s welcomed in. The soldier is readily accepted into the group and is present whenThomas sees Jesus for the first time …he’s in the boat  when the disciples go fishing … and he’s walking within earshot to hear Jesus restore Peter. Peter openly embraces this Gentile, even though in reality it was years later that Peter, a typical Jew who would had nothing to do with Gentiles, first talked to a Gentile about Christ.
  2. The cheese factor. The disciples didn’t seem real. They were presented as having their act together and understanding the spiritual significance of everything going on around them. (Bartholomew especially seemed more like a hippie straight out of 1969 high on love and possibly something illegal.) Risen moved from a story to make me think to one that was preachy and forced.

Fiennes does bring a welcome subtlety to the Roman pagan turned Christ follower.  Fiennes did not play him as the evil, nasty, hateful Roman soldier often portrayed; he feels human—and he retains that humanness after his conversion. This pagan-turned-believer is the one character the audience will connect with—simply because he is the most believable.

Overlook my criticism, though, and go see Risen. This is the one faith-based movie I would gladly take a non-Christian to see. The carefully crafted investigation into the missing body of Yeshua is worth enduring the second half.

I would have preferred a movie that filled the entire story with the investigation; the tensions between the Romans, the Jews, and the rumors of a resurrection; and the struggle in the Roman tribune’s own mind. The last scene, then, would’ve been the solider seeing Yeshua alive. The credits roll, and we the audience are left to ponder: what did the soldier do next?

That would make for a great conversation at Starbucks afterwards.