'Risen' is the Modern Christian Take on 'CSI: Jerusalem'
After my long history of being the only one in the audience for one war crime of a film after another, I was absolutely astonished to not be alone at Risen at 11:30am on a Friday. It’s one of those theaters in which you pick your seat on the little touch screen, so naturally the sole other audience member purchased the seat right next to me. She was older than the hills and accidentally brushed my hand trying to maneuver into the seat. I offered her some of my Reese’s Pieces for the sake of civility. So I was halfway through the DENNIS system with a senior citizen at a morning showing of a Bible movie. I am a golden god. Here is an artist’s rendering of our time together:
Risen is the story of a Roman tribune named Clavius who totes met Jesus and then wandered off into the desert a changed man. He didn’t exist. OR DID HE? The gospels were written a century after the fact in a time of almost universal illiteracy. Just try writing the history of World War I based on nothing but what your grandfather told you his grandfather told him about it. I bet you’d leave out poor Clavius too.
Clavius is played by Joseph Fiennes, because apparently Shakespeare in Love isn’t paying the bills anymore and ol’ Ralphie won’t share that sweet Harry Potter money. On the other hand, Clavius’ second in command Aryanus Perfectionus is played by Tom Felton. So I guess the Malfoy money is running short too.
In any case, Clavius is very serious all the time, but like with that sad reluctance to do all the bad things he’s ordered to do because he’s with the bad guys, but he’s not a bad guy. So he starts the movie leading his very tiny legion (The Tenth Legion: Minimus Budgetus) into battle against fanatic vaguely ethnic looking middle eastern guerrilla fighters. Spoiler alert: they’re Jews. There are some weird tonal choices to this movie.
Then he quickly moves on to supervising a crucifixion. Spoiler alert: the one in the middle is Jesus. Yes, that Jesus. I know, right?
This is where the movie gets creatively strange as the Jews (this time those wicked Pharisees, naturally) are presented as corrupt antagonists, while the Romans are more or less presented in a good light through and through. Hell, Pilate is just a guy trying to get a job done, and making a good faith (ha!) effort to try to not upset local customs too much, rule with a light hand, etc. The progenitors of the merchant of Venice twirl their mustaches and warn that this Jesus dude said he would rise from the dead and so his supporters will naturally steal his body so the Romans should guard it. Then it indeed disappears.
Boom. Clavius goes full CSI: Jerusalem to search for clues. Pilate yells at him that the Emperor is all over his ass about this case. But Clavius grimly continues on because *sunglasses on* this is his cross to bear.
This is a bad movie, is what I’m saying, but it’s exactly what its audience is looking for. And that makes it far more interesting than any mundanely lousy movie. It’s sort of like Left Behind in that why the movie appeals to its particular audience is far more interesting than the movie itself.
For one, the film is truly obsessed with evidence. Clavius finds so much tangible evidence that something supernatural happened that even Scully would be drinking the kool-aid. At one point Clavius asks one of the disciples why they believed in Jesus, and the scene is interrupted for Jesus to magic heal a leper from full elephant man to the “after” picture of a Proactiv commercial in two seconds of conversation. “That is why we have faith” intones the disciple, thus demonstrating a complete miscomprehension of the definition of faith. It’s not faith to believe a man a sorcerer when he does magic in front of you, it takes faith to believe he is when he doesn’t.
But more interesting is the way the film portrays the Romans, the Jews, and the disciples. They are portrayed essentially as: decent arbiters of law and order, fanatic assholes, and dirty hippies, respectively.
Every generation tells and retells the old stories to reflect their own perspectives and their own world. We see it in comic books all the time, with the stories of Batman and Superman evolving in focus and detail over the decades even as the core of the story stays the same. The gospels are the original graphic novels in that regard. Their themes and purpose have been reinvented in diametrically opposed ways repeatedly over the millennia. Because of the gospels’ long history in the Western world, they form a basis by which comparison can occur across centuries. How a society interprets the same story differently from century to century and across continents and revolutions, can tell us a lot about a society. How that society casts the roles of Romans, Jews, and disciples is a glimpse into its dark mirror.
Modern American Christianity, with its fundamental conservatism, runs into the same problems with the gospels with which the Roman Christians of a few hundred A.D. grappled. The human mind is an incredible piece of machinery in the way that it can without apparent dissonance simultaneously support the politics of world empire while basing one’s faith on a story of pacifism and kindness. Because we see all stories through the lens of our own preconceptions, and take each as evidence of what we already believed. It’s easy to dismiss films like this as mere preaching to the choir, but in fact we all believe we are in the choir and strain to find the proof in every preacher’s words.
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