I have a great fondness for religious movies, as for religion generally, but when I go to them I tend to view them with at least two sets of eyes: my own (those of a person who has faith, and who lacks faith, at the same time) and those of John Q. Public. I ask myself, “Does this movie show something to John Q. that will help him understand the phenomenon of religious faith? Or is it just for people like me, who are already in love with the whole thing even as we’re not quite sure about it and struggle with doubts?”
One reason I like the new movie Risen is that it does communicate to a remarkable extent what the experience of faith is like. It’s the story of a Roman soldier, played quite convincingly by Joseph Fiennes, who is tasked by Pontius Pilate with investigating the disappearance of the body of Jesus. The movie is essentially a police procedural set in Ancient Judea, and it ends up confronting much more fundamental questions than “Who done it?”
The choice of a Roman soldier as the story’s Everyman is – I won’t say “inspired,” in this context, but a very good one. The soldier is deeply involved in the brutality of the world, as he is part of the machinery of colonial oppression against the Jewish people in a.d. 33. When he meets Jesus’ disciples, he sees and learns remarkable things. He meets the apostle Bartholomew, who, as played by Stephen Hagan, is one of the finest depictions of religious joy I’ve encountered on screen. And Jesus himself is portrayed – by Cliff Curtis – as uncannily real. Anyone who has seen a lot of Bible movies can tell you how difficult it is to accomplish that.
The fact that Jesus comes across as a real person is perhaps the most important factor in this film’s effectiveness. Think about it: The typical non-religious person these days encounters Jesus chiefly as a battering ram wielded by his political enemies. Some op-eds invoke him against “the gay agenda”; others invoke him against “homophobia”; just this week, he was invoked as the reason it’s immoral to be worried about mass immigration into the United States (he, it seems, opposes the building of walls). For a guy who never ran for public office, he sure shows up in a lot of op-eds, for and against, on just about everything. So it’s good to be reminded that this behind this phenomenon, there is a person, and an encounter.
The Roman soldier says, despite all the remarkable things he has witnessed, that he has trouble reconciling all of it “with the world I know.” And the world he knew is the same one we know today: cruel, heartless, full of death and seemingly God-forsaken. And yet, in the midst of it, there are men and women who testify that cruelty and death do not have the final word – that there is a deeper and more wonderful truth at the heart of reality. It’s easy to dismiss them by waving one’s hand and pointing at the latest ISIS atrocity. But the testimony of these witnesses touches something inside us nonetheless; perhaps, a truth at our deepest core? This movie communicates, to some extent, the experience of these men and women.
In the words of another police procedural: “These are their stories.”