A movie is just a movie. Superheroes, sorcerers, stormtroopers - it's all made up for our entertainment. So when a Bible-based feature comes out on the public circuit, it becomes a referendum on truth: Is it faithful to the text? Does it have a hidden agenda? From the Kabbalah-promoting nonsense of 2014's Noah to the grim bleakness of 2015's Exodus: Gods and Kings, recent widescreen Bible epics have regretfully not stood up to the test of sound doctrine.
And that's what makes this year's Easter release, Risen, surprising. It asks a simple question: How would a complete outsider have investigated the death and disappearance of Jesus? It inserts a fictional Roman commander, Clavius, into a very real situation, turning it into an episode of CSI:Jerusalem (Spoiler alert: He's not dead).
We initially meet the brooding, earnest Clavius as he violently quashes a Jewish rebellion. Under the orders of Pontius Pilate, he's then put in charge of the removal from the cross of "the Nazarene," the sealing of His tomb, and the subsequent search for the missing body.
It's all creative license, of course, but it rings true. You can't help feeling that the Roman commander is proxy for all of us: We've all joined the story after the fact, and must try to make sense of this man who is more than just a man. We can't afford to ignore Him - we need to pursue Him to find the truth. The missing body in Jerusalem was a genuine problem, and it still is today, because a risen Jesus is a dangerous Jesus who needs to be taken seriously. Suddenly, all the promise of Rome means nothing to this powerful commander; all that matters is finding the truth about this one man.
There are missteps in the movie: One of the disciples, Bartholomew, is depicted as a vaguely hippyish, happy-go-lucky puppy dog of a man who provides comic relief, which is questionable at best. The tomb guards are given lower-class British accents to show that they're incompetent and are going to do something stupid. Pilate is portrayed as completely unrepentant, even threatening to kill Jesus again if they do find Him alive - an attitude at odds with the historical description of a man clearly haunted by his wife's dream and the injustice he saw. Jesus Himself does some things that are not mentioned in the Bible, including healing a leper after His resurrection and walking off into the sunset rather than ascending into the clouds.
But don't worry too much about that. The inaccuracies are not blasphemous or doctrine-twisting, and the movie gets far more right than it gets wrong. In one scene, the disciples sit in an upper room with the resurrected Jesus, half-crying and silenced by shock. Thomas walks in, and Jesus affectionately embraces him, as He surely would have done. In another scene, after the miraculous catch of fish on the Galilean shore, the disciples jump out of the boat and all embrace Him in one big group hug. It's a beautiful moment, and surely comes close to the excitement the disciples must've been feeling.
And that's the joy of this film. The director has captured the pure affectionate devotion these men felt for Jesus, and what it would be like to be an outsider looking in and wanting to know this man. What it lacks compared to the authentic gravitas of 2004's The Passion of the Christ, it makes up for in childlike wonder at the resurrection of the Son of God and what it means for humanity. It means a lot for the Roman officer too, who ultimately finds his life changed by what he sees.
In one of the final scenes, Pilate surveys a fleet of Roman ships as a centurion reports to him that the disciples have all escaped. "I doubt we'll ever hear from them again," he deadpans, and the audience is in on the joke. Today, the simple followers of that dead Nazarene have outlasted the glory of the Roman Empire.
He is risen indeed.