My bride and I saw the movie Risen in Kankakee, Illinois on Sunday at the Paramount Theater in downtown Kankakee. The Paramount Theater is a well maintained movie palace that was built in 1931. Sitting in its wide seats and viewing its art deco adornments, one is transported back to the Golden Age of Hollywood when attending movies was an event, and people did not expect to see films in cramped, one size fits all characterless shoeboxes. By popular request, this review of the movie Risen will contain only minor spoilers, below the fold. I highly recommend the film, and I thought that I would give the film some historical background that may enhance the enjoyment of viewers.
The protagonist of the film is Military Tribune Clavius of the Xth Legion Fretensis, “Xth Legion of the Strait”. Raised by Augustus during his civil war with Antony, Fretensis, at the time of Christ, was garrisoned in Syria and doubtless supplied troops to Pilate. A military tribune ranked between the commander of a legion, a legate, and the centurions, that curious Roman combination of company commander and career nco. Under the Republic, after the military reforms of Marius, circa 100BC, military tribunes, six in number were each assigned to the legion. The senior tribune, referred to as a broad stripe tribune, was of senatorial rank and was second in command to the legate. The five other tribunes, thin stripe tribunes, were of the equestrian order. Their duties were determined by the legate. Under Augustus, military tribunes were occasionally former centurions, promoted as a result of outstanding service.
As depicted in the film, Clavius, stoically portrayed by Joseph Fiennes, is obviously a former centurion. He is a battle hardened veteran, an expert at war. He worships Mars, the God of War, but longs for retirement in Rome, where he can have a good family, buy a country estate, and enjoy peace, an end to strife, and, as he wryly says to Pilate, a day without death. Assigned by Pilate to carry out the execution of Jesus and two thieves, he does his duty competently but without enthusiasm. Instead of the relatively quiet crucifixion scenes of most movies, the scene depicted in Risen is chaotic, the Roman troops barely keeping the howling mob around the crosses under control. Clavius decides to break the legs of the condemned to bring about their deaths swiftly and to end the near riot. The breaking of the legs of the two thieves is done by means of an iron bar swung against their legs, a scene that is historically accurate and underlines the raw brutality of the execution process. Mary weeps and wails as the thieves have their legs broken. Clavius, moved by her bitter sorrow in spite of himself, orders that the side of Christ, who appears to be dead, be pierced by a spear instead of having the legs of Christ broken.
Clavius reports back to Pilate, not notably moved by the executions, merely another miserable day doing the dirty work which he is assigned. Pilate orders him to find the body of Jesus after the Temple leaders tell Pilate that the body had vanished. It is likely that historically Pilate would have wanted to have this investigated. He was a protégé of Roman strongman Sejanus, who had recently been toppled and executed by the Emperor Tiberius. Associates of Sejanus were being rounded up throughout the Empire, and doubtless Pilate was now walking on eggshells, eager to maintain the peace in Judea at all costs. Additionally the Roman historian Tacitus, who had no love of Christians and did not know much about them, writing about circa 100 AD, mentions the Crucifixion in such a way that it is possible that he was referring to an official report made by Pilate to Tiberius.
I will end my review here, the rest of the film concerning the investigation. Clavius’ longing for a day without death is at the heart of the reason why Christianity spread so swiftly: the conviction that Christ had risen from the dead, and the hope that followers of Christ had more to look forward to than the death that comes to all Men. That is the core of the film. Fiennes gives a good performance. The standout performance is that by Stewart Scudamore who invests Peter, the big fisherman, with a charisma and bonhomie that I suspect the real Peter possessed.
Not on a scale with the great Biblical epics of the Fifties and Sixties, Risen does a good job of showing how a movement that seemed defeated after the execution of Jesus, in three days transformed into a Church that swept over the globe.