Christian filmmakers are on a roll. The last several years have brought us an increasing number of religious films, many bordering on mainstream and featuring globally recognized stars. But among the miraculous true stories and positive message films, Risen, the tale of a skeptical Roman soldier Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) encountering the risen Christ (Cliff Curtis), is the one that caught the attention of Krista Bontrager, the dean of online learning at Reasons to Believe. I sat down to talk with her about Risen and the challenges of Christian filmmaking. (Spoiler warning.)
MM: What makes Risen stand out among other Christian or Bible-themed movies?
KB: That’s a good question. The production values, I thought, were exceptional. In previous reviews, I’ve commented on improved production values in Christian films and TV shows such as The Bible and A. D., both produced by Mark Burnett. Risen is definitely as good, if not better. It has the look and feel of a real Hollywood film rather than a half-funded Christian effort. The cinematography, writing, and acting were all very strong.
What do you think makes this particular story work?
Viewers do have to be amendable to suspending their disbelief. If you know anything about ancient Jewish culture, you know that a Roman isn’t going to just come in and start interacting with a bunch of Jewish men. That’s just not going to happen. Jews considered Romans unclean. These issues persist through half of the book of Acts.
But if you’re willing to ignore that inaccuracy or just don’t know about it, then the story really works. It invites the viewer into a thought experiment. What would happen if the Roman soldier in charge of investigating the disappearance of Jesus’ body were to actually encounter the risen Christ and his disciples? Clavius is intended to represent us, the viewers, as a fly on the wall. What questions would I have? What evidences would I want? What rocks would I want to overturn to look for evidence of the resurrection?
What I really enjoyed about Risen was the interplay between Clavius’ factual investigation and faith. The evidence led him to faith. So many times in Hollywood movies, faith and evidence are bifurcated. They don’t have anything to do with each other. But Risen did a masterful job of showing how evidence can lead to faith. It was the evidence that led Clavius to have a change of mind about the resurrection and then came the implied change of heart.
I have heard a believer say he couldn’t see the point of Risen. If there isn’t a blatant gospel presentation in a film (or an alter call of sorts), then what’s the point?
That gets us into the larger question of what makes good Christian art. What makes art “Christian”? These were hotly debated questions when I was in film school at Biola in the 1980s. At that point, Christian filmmaking was still in its infancy. Some asked whether Christians should even go into filmmaking as a career. And if they did, what sort of pictures should they work on? Could they work on anything other than a Billy Graham film? For a couple of decades, Graham owned a huge percentage of the Christian film market. In the last ten minutes of a film, Billy Graham would do an abridged gospel presentation and the main character would come forward to accept Christ.
In the 1990s, we opened up to the idea that Christians could make “positive message” films without a gospel presentation. There was also the “lifestyle evangelism” approach in which Christians worked in the Hollywood system and tried to be salt and light in that industry.
Currently, there’s a cottage industry of Christian films trying to be somewhat mainstream and profitable (like War Room). But, still, their production values aren’t that good. You don’t see any of these films nominated for major awards.
There’s yet another line of thought that says good Christian storytelling is more akin to what Tolkien and Lewis did. In filmmaking, this is where you’re making a film that can stand on its own as being good but has a Christian ethos in it. Anyone can watch it and say, “That was a good movie.” For example, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is full of Christian themes and ideas, and Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Return of the King went on to win 11 Oscars.
That’s why I love Les Misérables, particularly the 1998 film. There’s some powerful stuff in that story.
Yes, Victor Hugo was a Catholic. That would be another good example of a story that can stand on its own merits while weaving Christian themes into its narrative. It doesn’t use Christianity as a prop or plot device. This is how so many Christian films operate. Conversion becomes a plot device at the end. It’s almost like a bow on a Christmas present, neatly tying it all together.
What we have currently settled into in the last 10 or 15 years, with films like Fireproof, War Room, and God’s Not Dead, are films that are by us, for us. In other words, we make these films for the Christian echo chamber.
I don’t see Risen as being a part of that culture. Risen is a film that stands on its own merits and is in the normal Hollywood channels. I would even hesitate to call Risen a “Christian” film. It’s more in the tradition of the religious epics of the 1950s, like The Ten Commandments and The Robe.
Personally, I enjoyed so many things about Risen: its attention to details, moments of humor, creative character portrayals, etc. But my favorite scene was the one with the leper and Jesus. It was such a strong depiction of Christ’s compassion for humanity that it made me cry. Did you have a favorite moment or scene from the film?
That scene was very powerful. The one I appreciated most was when Clavius talks with Jesus. They have a little conversation about Clavius’ wrestling with everything he’s seen. Clavius acknowledges that he can’t argue with the evidence of his own eyes.
This was a powerful moment for me because I could identify with it. When people ask me why I’m a Christian, I say it’s because of the resurrection. I can’t get away from it. There are still a lot of things I don’t understand about my faith and a lot of unanswered questions, but everything brings me back to the resurrection. And, like Clavius, I cannot escape that evidence and that truth.
They threw a little bit of Pascal’s wager in there, too. Clavius says he’s “afraid of being wrong and wagering eternity on it.” There’s a lot of food for thought in Risen. Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
I definitely think it’s worth people’s time. I don’t often recommend films, but Risen is an exception. It’s also one of the few films that I would be willing to share with an open unbeliever.