This biblical epic reminds us that the Bible featured real people who enjoyed a good joke as much as we do
The names of the twelve apostles are listed four times in the New Testament, once each in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and then again in the book of Acts. That bit of Bible trivia is brought up only to point out that those four lists are the only times St. Bartholomew is ever mentioned in Holy Scripture. Beyond his name and status as one of the twelve, nobody really knows with any surety who Bartholomew was or what he was like as a person. Despite such anonymity, however, the new movie Risen has decided to give the good saint quite a bit of screen time, and suffice it to say Bartholomew is portrayed as being a little, well … nutty.
That’s what the Roman military tribune, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), believes anyway. Having returned from battle just in time to witness the crucifixion of Jesus, Clavius is assigned by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) the unenviable task of tracking down the missing corpse of the would-be savior after his body disappears from its tomb. Pilate’s concern is that if Jesus’ followers come to believe the Nazarene has truly risen from the dead, they may feel encouraged to take up arms against the Romans, causing civil unrest at a time Pilate desperately needs to demonstrate to Rome that he has everything under control. And so Pilate orders his favorite tribune to play detective, which is how Clavius ends up bringing Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan) in for questioning.
To say that Clavius finds Bartholomew’s behavior strange is an understatement. The apostle’s ecstatic exclamations convince the soldier that Jesus’ followers must be inebriated, brainwashed, deranged or some combination thereof. Of course, we the audience are in on the joke, so as Bartholomew giddily proclaims that Jesus’ resurrection changes everything, we can both nod in silent agreement that yes, yes it surely did, and at the same time have a little amusement at the confounded Clavius’ expense.
If there’s anything that separates Risen from previous biblical epics, it’s the humor that it injects into the story. There are grim moments to be sure, such as the battle and the crucifixion scenes that open the film, so the movie more than earns its PG-13 rating. But these scenes are offset by a thread of jocularity that runs throughout the film, be it the guards assigned to Jesus’ tomb whose protestations bring to mind the buffoonish gravediggers of Hamlet or the running gag surrounding an accidental injury to St. Peter’s leg. Rather than present us with just another pious pageant, Risen takes the time to remind us that those we read about in the Bible were real people who enjoyed a good joke as much as anyone else.
Still, the centerpiece of the film is the character of Clavius, and his journey is a serious one. A halfhearted devotee of Mars, the god of war, Clavius’ investigation into the disappearance of Jesus’ body slowly causes him to question all his previous beliefs. In this, Risen can’t help but recall The Robe, the 1953 classic in which Richard Burton portrayed a Roman tribune who similarly sought to learn more of the man he crucified. Fiennes’ Clavius remains much more of a skeptic than Burton’s Marcello, though, even when confronted by seeming miracles. In this, perhaps, he is a reflection of our modern times in which even the clearest evidence regarding God’s truth is met with a wary secular eye.
Under the capable direction of Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Count of Monte Cristo) and buoyed by Joseph Fiennes’ performance, Risen holds your interest throughout its running time and never succumbs to the sentimental sappiness that is the bane of so many religious films. It’s a fine addition to the biblical movie canon, especially if you don’t mind a film in which you get to see some of your favorite saints with the occasional mischievous grin on their faces.
In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by … watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.