I saw Risen the other night. I had not been planning to see it but ended up going with friends. It wasn’t bad… at least not in the sense of “why the hell did I spend $7 on this crap”, but the more Jesus movies I see the more I like Zeffirelli’s old Jesus of Nazareth which had stuff like character development and intelligent dialogue.
Back in the early 90s there was a movie with an almost identical plot to Risen, with a Roman soldier investigating the death of Jesus and not finding the body, wanders around the desert, except in that movie he never get an answer, sleeps with Pilates wife and in the end Pilate kills him. I can’t for the life of me remember the name of it, but it used to run on HBO all the time.
There is one scene in Risen I really liked [SPOILER ALERT!]
Jesus – get this – rises from the dead!
But seriously, the one scene I really liked was when the Roman detective who has been searching high and low for the corpse of Jesus kicks in the door of the upper room and finds himself face to face with the man whom he saw die. The Roman freezes, then backs away from the door and just stands there for a minute staring into space.
I liked the scene because that is what the story of the Resurrection implies. It means that the normal rules of human existence simply don’t apply anymore, or that they apply, but are not at all what they seem. It only has to happen once, and the whole universe takes on a new meaning.
The movie really should have ended right then and there. From then on it descended from predictable and wooden Hollywood pap to religious kitsch.
Why is it so hard to make a decent movie about Jesus? The Gospels are not written to be novels, they were meant to be read in church in a few sittings. But the Gospels are not corny. The basic material for the story is so much stronger than attempts to put them to film.
Here are some ideas:
- Movies are made for a mass audience and so are really nothing other then a bunch of cliches strung together into the semblance of a good story, without actually being a good story. Sometimes the cliches are strung together skillfully and the director actually fools people into thinking he is doing something original (cough… Quentin Tarantino) but usually we know it is just crap and we are here for the boobs, fart jokes and explosions.
- Preaching is not story telling. I hate being preached at in general. I really hate it when I go see a movie, even if I agree with the message.
- People today just don’t “get” the Jesus of the Gospels. We relate to Jesus the buddy, Jesus the superhero, Jesus the hippie, Jesus the therapist, because those are the closest categories we have, and so those are the movies we make about him. The Gospels use categories that the first century would understand: prophet, king (in a sense), and priest.
So, if you want to see Jesus as a hippie / superhero / therapist / buddy, go see Risen. If you want to see Jesus, read the Gospels.