“I’m yet sticky with filth.”
So the Roman tribune Clavius tells a messenger when he’s summoned to appear before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. No matter, the man says. Pilate summons you. And when a man with the power Pilate wields summons you, obedience is the only option.
“I have a situation,” Pilate tells the tired and dirty Clavius, who’s just returned from a battle in which he and his troops put down yet another insurrection of angry Jews. The “situation” involves the execution of a man named Yeshua, one who claimed to be the Messiah, one who claimed He would rise again in three days after His death.
“I had to crucify him,” Pilate says nonchalantly.
Still, Pilate is anything but nonchalant when it comes to putting down the stubbornly persistent Jewish uprisings. And he is determined to make sure nothing so scandalous as a “resurrection” occurs with Yeshua.
And so Clavius is given the task of making sure Yeshua’s body is put in the tomb … and that it stays there.
But when Yeshua’s body doesn’t stay where it’s supposed to, and two drunken guards don’t want to talk, well, Clavius isn’t happy. And neither is Pilate.
“We must find a body,” Pilate orders his subordinate. “Find the corpse of this cursed Yeshua before it rots.”
Clavius sets off to search, and he does find something. But it most certainly isn’t a corpse.
Clavius is a man hardened by a lifetime spent doing the bloody bidding of his betters. And that, we see, has taken a toll on his soul. In a telling, poignant scene with Pilate, the Roman prefect asks the weary soldier what he wants in life. The man’s first responses are general and perhaps a bit worldly: “Power, wealth.” But then Clavius gets more personal, even confessional. “Family,” he says. “A place in the country. … A day without death. Peace.” Even though Clavius has no problem brutally killing the enemies of Rome, it’s clear that his career as a soldier has left him numb and longing for something better, something life-giving instead of death-dealing.
Clavius is a hard man, but he’s a fair one, too. As he begins to question those who might have information about why the body of Yeshua (Jesus’ name in Hebrew) has disappeared, it’s clear that he wants to find the truth. He’s not content to simply swallow the story that the members of the Jewish ruling council (the Sanhedrin) and Pilate are telling to explain the empty tomb. Instead, he wants to know what really happened.
What Clavius finds in his search for a dead man’s body opens to him the power of life itself. The power to wash the filth, blood and guilt from his hands—and his heart—once and for all.
Risen might best be thought of as a piece of historical fiction that imagines what might have happened if a character we don’t meet in the Bible interacts with those who are found there, and observes the events surrounding and following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Onscreen, Clavius witnesses the earthquake that punctuates the moment of Jesus’ death. He sees that the Savior’s legs are not broken. He hears the Roman centurion’s conviction that something about Jesus is different (“It’s as if He wanted to be sacrificed,” the soldier says). He steps into the empty tomb. He evaluates Mary Magdalene’s testimony of encountering Jesus after His resurrection. He hovers inside the upper room where Jesus meets with His disciples, looking on as Thomas puts his hands in his Lord’s wounds. He’s there when Christ appears to the disciples again in Galilee before giving them the Great Commission and ascending into heaven.
Clavius is there for all of that, and he becomes every bit as much an eye witness to Jesus’ resurrection as the disciples are. Of course, while they were primed to believe, for Clavius it’s a longer journey. At one point, Clavius prays to a warrior idol—but invokes the Hebrew God as he does so. He’s clearly compelled by his loyalty to Pilate and to Rome, but he can’t deny he’s seeing something inexplicable, something miraculous, something that challenges everything he believes.
Jesus is depicted as a gracious, smiling, laughing, loving miracle worker. He fills the disciples’ net with fish and heals a man whose flesh has been devoured by leprosy. We see why Peter, Bartholomew and Mary Magdalene would follow Him anywhere, and why the latter two laugh at Clavius’ initial threats as he wrongheadedly tries to force them to confess that they stole Jesus’ body. “What if I ordered you crucified?” Clavius taunts Bartholomew fairly early in the film. “I would happily submit,” Bartholomew responds—an answer that leaves Clavius dumbfounded.
Clavius ultimately chooses to follow Jesus and goes with the disciples north to Galilee. When Pilate gets word of it, he asks a younger solider named Lucius, “How could he follow that Hebrew?” Lucius responds, “Perhaps it’s true.” Indeed. And in the end, Clavius removes his Roman signet ring (his worldly symbol of power and authority), telling an innkeeper, “I believe. I can never be the same.”
Suggestive verbal reference is made to Mary Magdalene having been a “woman of the street” (which is never indicated in Scripture). When Clavius is trying to find her, he asks who among a group of men knows what she looks like, and many raise their hands (implying that they’d “been with her”). Pilate and Clavius are shown shirtless in a spa-like bath, where Pilate asks him, “What do you desire? A massage? A girl?” (Clavius expresses no interest in those suggestions.)
An intense battle between Clavius’ troops and Jewish zealots involves quite a lot of bloodshed. Combatants on both sides are skewered with spears, or hacked and stabbed with swords and daggers. The filmmakers avoid gratuitous amounts of gore, but it’s very clear just how violent and bloody the world of first-century Judea was. Before executing a Jew kneeling before him, Clavius quips, “Tell Yahweh you’re coming.”
Jesus and two others are shown hanging on crosses, held up by nails in their forearms and ankles. They’re clearly in agony, and soldiers seek to end their lives quickly by breaking the two other crucifixion victims’ legs and then piercing Jesus’ side with a spear. Clavius looks at Jesus’ dead body, full in the face; our Lord’s eyes are still open, and blood is dripping out of one in a manner that looks like a tear. Men are shown pulling the spikes out of the other crucifixion victims’ arms and legs, then unceremoniously dragging their dead bodies to a pit full of rotting corpses.
In an attempt to locate Jesus’ missing body, Roman soldiers under Clavius’ command dig up many fresh graves. Several times we see corpses in various states of decay as men try to ascertain whether the bodies belong to the missing Messiah. Clavius puts a coin in the mouth of a deceased Roman soldier with a terrible, stitched-up gash across his ashen face.
Pilate is often shown sipping from a goblet full of wine. He tells a servant to make sure Clavius’ glass stays full as well. Two hungry soldiers are said to have gotten drunk and fallen asleep while on duty. Clavius sips from the wineskin they used and spits the cheap drink out in disgust. Several other people are shown drinking in a tavern-like establishment; one is quite inebriated.
Risen accomplishes something quite remarkable: It tells the familiar, timeless story of Jesus’ death and resurrection from a fresh vantage point. The result is a movie that invites viewers to look at our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, not from an insider’s perspective, but from an outsider’s; through the eyes of someone with no reason to believe and every reason to be skeptical about the mind-blowing miracles that have just been performed.
But as Clavius examines the evidence, piece by piece, bit by bit, this world-weary Roman tribune is persuaded to place his faith in a Messiah who is clearly no longer in the grave. And from there it’s hinted that he can now begin to experience the kind of vibrant, abundant life he’s longed for—a far cry from his life so far, one in which he and those in his command brutally deal death to others every day.
The film depicts enough of that brutality for parents to rightly protect younger kids from it. Risen certainly does not tread into the torturous territory explored by The Passion of the Christ, but it’s violent nonetheless. A battle scene claims the lives of many, and watching Roman soldiers break the legs of those being crucified is wince-inducing indeed—as are subsequent scenes showing mounds of decaying bodies.
But it was into that violent, bloody world that Jesus was truly born. It’s the broken world He gave His life to save. And the story here is one that may very well prompt many moviegoers to see the one called Yeshua through fresh eyes, just as Clavius does.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.