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Were You There?

‘Risen’ movie offers an Ignatian-like meditation

By Brian Caulfield, FFG Editor

My criteria for judging a religious movie is not very sophisticated, but it’s effective. After watching the film, I ask one question: Did it bring me closer to God? Of course, there may be numerous considerations that go into answering that question, such as the script, the acting, the cinematography, the realism, and the respect shown for the Gospel source, but the bottom line is how the movie moved me toward the Lord.

By this measure, the just-released Risen does an admirable job. Stories about Jesus are not easy to produce; the subject matter is always so much bigger than even the big screen. Jesus is the Word made flesh, the eternal God come to earth, the miracle worker brought up as a simple carpenter’s son, who died a gruesome death and rose to new life. How do you depict that?

Golden-era Hollywood found the answer in epic productions such as The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, with marquee names, lavish sets and special effects which now look somewhat amateur. The anti-establishment era of the 60s came up with the hippie figures of Jesus Christ Superstar and the more humble Godspell. More recently, Mel Gibson focused on the bloody yet redemptive suffering of The Passion of the Christ, in which the Resurrection is almost an afterthought.

True to its name, Risen picks up where Gibson left off. It presents an extended meditation of what the Resurrection of Jesus meant for the people of that day, and by extension, what it means for us today. Seen through the ever-widening eyes and opening mind of a Roman tribune (Joseph Fiennes), who chanced upon the crucifixion and ordered the final spear-thrust into Christ’s side, the Resurrection is presented as a real yet transcendent event of unfathomable depth that confronts us with a stark choice that cannot be avoided. Who is Jesus Christ? Is he a dead man falsely exalted by zealots, or the risen Savior of the world?

For me, this film was an extended meditation on the Gospels in the style of St. Ignatius. The founder of the Jesuits instructed his charges to place themselves in the Gospel scenes, reading each passage while imagining themselves as an unseen observer as Jesus speaks, teaches and heals. In this movie, the Roman soldier Clavius takes us on that intense, personal, interior journey, beginning as a war-wise skeptic charged by Pilate to find the body of Jesus so the resurrection rumors can be quashed. His search leads to encounters with apostles and disciples and eventually Jesus himself, whom he recognizes as the bloody man on the cross who was definitely dead and buried. As Clavius’ faith is built, one scene after another, so we are invited to renew our own faith and see the resurrection not just as a story in a big book, but as a living reality in our own lives.

Risen is a film hewn from the rock of the Gospel which does its subject matter justice. And, yes, it is a fine movie in terms of script, acting, scenery and production values. Don’t believe any negative reviews that pick apart this or that aspect of the movie. See it for yourself, and bring the kids, for the sake of your faith, and for your own enrichment and enjoyment.

View the trailer.

(Due to bloody and violent scenes, the Catholic News Service rated the film A-III – adults. The MPAA rating is PG-13. I watched it with my 11-year-old boy and he is fine.)