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'Risen' movie raises old Hollywood trope – unbeliever meets Jesus

By Kimberly Winston/Religion News Service
On February 29, 2016

‘Risen’ follows Clavius, a high ranking Roman
soldier that Jesus Christ has an effect on.

An unbeliever in the midst of an existential crisis meets Jesus and has a conversion experience. High-mindedness – not high jinks – ensues.

Audiences have seen this old Hollywood trope before: in "Quo Vadis," (1951), "The Robe," (1953), "Ben Hur" (1959), and now in "Risen," now open in theaters. And while a lot has changed in the nearly seven decades since the first of these "come to Jesus" movies, the core plot mechanism of "he of little faith meeting the ultimate man of faith" remains.

Why use such an old narrative device – minus the sequined costumes, wigs and Max Factor makeup which have been replaced by whips, scourges and buckets of blood (thanks, Mel Gibson and "The Passion of the Christ")?

"I think the idea of being carried through the narrative of Christ – from his crucifixion to the resurrection and the ascension, through the eyes of nonbeliever – allows us to come at this from a soft angle," said Joseph Fiennes, the British actor who plays unbeliever Clavius in "Risen." "Clavius represents the every man. We're all on a hunt, theological or not. We're all on some form of investigation or discovery."

In "Risen," Clavius is a high-ranking Roman soldier who, as the right-hand man of Pontius Pilate (an excellent Peter Firth), has a front-row seat at the Crucifixion. With his own eyes he sees Jesus dead and buried in a sealed tomb. So when the body is missing, and reports of Jesus sightings come in, Clavius turns into the most skeptical of detectives, looking for the corpse.

Instead (spoiler alert!), he encounters a very much alive, very jolly Jesus – "Yeshua," in this film, played by Cliff Curtis. From there, let's just say Clavius becomes a new man – the end.

Not much of a surprise in terms of plot – and that's the point, said William Blizek – founding editor of the Journal of Religion and Film.

"It's a nice model and it works," said Blizek. "It is about change. You're changing for the better. If you're a nonbeliever and you see a nonbeliever become a Christian, the message to you is, 'If you do this you'll be a happy camper, too.'"

But that kind of “Christian comfort food” can work against a movie, said Doug Cowan, a professor of religious studies at the University of Waterloo who studies religion and film. Movies that present a more controversial idea of the Gospels or of Jesus – think "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988), where picketers were so upset by the film's married Jesus that they attacked a theater – can bring in larger audiences, curious about the controversy.

"Those movies aren't hot dogs and beer," said Cowan. "They say there are some very hard things we need to chew over in this movie."

Case in point being 2004's "The Passion of the Christ." Director-writer Gibson said it was based strictly on the New Testament Gospels, but scholars such as Cowan said it was also based on the very graphic visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th-century mystic nun. And many critics condemned it for its anti-Semitic portrayal of Jews as the bloodthirsty killers of Jesus.

"That wasn't comfort food," said Cowan, and audiences came out in record numbers.

But gentler, easier-to-swallow Bible movies such as "Risen" have their place, said Cowan. They are for "reality maintenance," said Cowan – not intended to make new believers as much as to reinforce the beliefs of existing ones.

Hollywood "is always telling the same stories because we are always asking the same questions," said Cowan. "Who are we, where do we come from, what is the purpose of my life? We are simply driven to ask the questions, whether we get the answers or not."

Kimberly Winston is a national correspondent for Religion News Service.

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