Ever since I watched the trailer for Risen last summer and heard the name "Yeshua" pop up, I knew had to go check it out. As a cultural linguist, I'm sick and tired of movies based in ancient Israel but using the Latin-Anglican name that wouldn't be around for a couple centuries.
That wouldn't be the only thing to get me riled up and in love with this movie. Sadly, I would only get to watch it on its last theatrical day.
From the start, it indicates it's in the year 33 A.D.
Okay, it's in the year Yeshua's crucified.
Joseph Fienne's character, Clavius, heads to an isolated home in the middle of a desert, looking parched. I'm already a bit confused as I thought he was part of the regiment in Rome. He is given some food by a friendly man who asks him about his "tribune ring". That both tells me a bit of his character and gives it a historical touch.
Through the first act of the film, I have to keep changing tracks in mind on when in history the film took place. Having been raised on the Bible all my life, I was able to tell exactly what was happening with one little twist. I saw it from a new perspective. The ground shakes, Clavius's new aide, Lucius, remarks that the sun god must be mad. Clavius mutters "Some god is."
Speaking of god and God, this movie did something unprecedented in my experience. Instead of Romans referring to Greek gods, they actually refer to their own.
"Which god do you beseech favor from, Clavius?"
"The god of war, Mars."
Stop right there. He said MARS?? I don't believe in any other god than Yahweh, obviously, but the historical and cultural accuracy or Romans referring to their own god rather than mixing cultures in mainstream media has been like a plague of madness for me. Mars, Minerva, I think Jupiter got referenced at one point. Someone really did their research and stuck to it without going for popular misconceptions!
Another trope that got shoved aside was a critical and medical aspect of crucifixion. Two really. The first was seeing crudely hewn nails in the- whoa, the wrists!? Yes, in the Jewish perspective, "hand" goes from fingertips to elbow. Medically, the Romans knew enough about human anatomy (no empire could go for so long without being smart to some degree) that if the nail went through the palm, the weight of the body would force the hand to be cut through, letting the torment end too quickly. How "quickly"? Clavius remarks that many crucified criminals take days to die. Yeshua was the first to only take six hours.
The second was part of the reason for PG-13 rating. It's also something missed out on in Passion of the Christ. Three crucified, two still living, one crying. A roman gives a "break" signal to another, that one gets a rod and breaks the leg bones of both living criminals to quickly kill and end them.
Oh good, they're not sympathetic Romans, they're still sadistic.
But something about the already dead crucified sits unwell with Clavius.
In the span of a few minutes, I not only see time advancing, but see more Biblical accuracy. Clavius's general makes a snide remark on the Sanhedrin's hypocrisy to not work on the Sabbath yet they're visiting him on it. They're blatantly belligerent about Yeshua, constantly calling Him a "heretic" and "blasphemous".
That's true, they did hate Him with a zealous passion.
Then Sunday comes along and the core mystery starts. Frayed ropes, huge stone rolled, shroud is empty, no word on the missing corpse. Huh? Clavius looks everywhere that he can. He questions the guards who stayed posted to guard. He could tell one lied, but when the other told the same lie, an emotional issue happened at the inn he was drinking at. Very good acting on his part. From drunk liar to slightly sobered and confused guard. The truth was more unsettling than he could comprehend.
Then the mystery ends in a way I didn't expect. Clavius finds the 11 disciples along with Mary Magdalene-
Stop. Yeshua. Maryam. Clavius something something something. They got those historical names right, how did they get her name wrong? It irked me they got on a good track record then they didn't say Maryam of Magdala or the Magdalene. Further irking me was that the film used a misconception that's been popular since the 900's A.D. Her being a prostitute. Though it's never directly said, a derogatory phrase is used and a subtle joke is made in one scene (I found it both darkly humorous yet annoying). The problem? There's no evidence in history she was a prostitute. Just vexed with multiple demon. There's more evidence she was a proper businesswoman than anything else, let alone *that*. That's the only thing to bring down my score from perfect.
-sitting with 12 men. Clavius looks around the one room house. ("upper room" in the Bible) He knew of 11 disciples, then he spots... Him. The trailer never indicated Yeshua would have a presence, but he does. And this further shocked me that someone actually does their research for a movie.
1. Yeshua is not white, he's Mediterranean. I couldn't tell if he was an Italian actor, Israeli, or something else. Weird thing is, he's from New Zealand.
2. He's not a Hollywood "hunk". He looks entirely normal. The Bible indicates how lowly his looks are. He's more like Hank from the cancelled show Zero Hour: so normal looking (maybe below average) you wouldn't think to look to him for salvation.
This film kept blowing me away with how much it was getting right.
By the third act, things have changed. I started to immediately recognize which Gospel story was being shown. With the fictitious Clavius involved, it wasn't a typical " in the spirit of" based-on kind of film, though I wouldn't blame you for thinking it was. Rather, it hit me in the scene in the upper room that Clavius is the symbol of today's skeptical generation. Even Yeshua asks him at one point "You have with your own eyes, why do you still not believe?" A common and necessary question today's adamant skepticism. But also an invitation to dive into faith. Clavius holds on to a small degree of skeptic, though smiles at an incredible example of Yeshua's unprecedented kindness (the healing of a leper, which prompts a good response from Peter to Clavius) and goes so far as to help them escape a legion of Roman soldiers. By the end, I recognized the ending of Luke's Gospel and wondered how His ascension would be treated.
Unlike traditional paintings, there were no angels and there was a clear sunrise. Just when I feared the film would pull a heresy and suggest He simply walk into the sunrise in a reverse Western movie fashion... let's just say I got blown away, my jaw dropping. I didn't see the technique being used before.
In the end of the film, Clavius is asked if he believes all he saw and he states with quiet confidence that he does, ending the greatest historical-based Bible film I have ever seen, and would daresay this should become the standard on how to make not a decent, not an okay,not a good, but a great Christian film.
Minor historical hiccough aside with Mary Magdalene included, I give this epic a 4.8/5