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Review: “Risen” investigates the Gospel like never before

Welcome to Jerusalem, 33 AD. The sun bakes the cracked earth, cliffs surround and dwarf all signs of civilization and the Roman government is under attack by Jewish insurgents. They claim a man from Nazareth called Yeshua is the Messiah they have been waiting for, so the lavish Pontius Pilate and scheming Caiaphas plan his crucifixion. Both parties believe their troubles are done.

But three days later, the Nazarene’s body is gone, and if the Romans don’t produce a corpse, the Jews will rise up. Pilate assigns the formidable military leader Clavius to find the Nazarene and his followers. Thus begins the greatest manhunt in history.

Risen” is the latest Christian-based movie from Affirm Films, which has produced such church-friendly cinema as “Soul Surfer,” “Courageous” and “War Room.” While these movies are well intentioned, they are – honestly – poor movies. The writing is cheesy, the performances are off and the whole thing just feels elementary.

I am happy to say that “Risen” is far and away the best Christian movie I have ever seen. Everything about it works: the dialogue, the acting, the production value and, yes, the message of the Gospel.

Kevin Reynolds, writer and director of “Risen”, has an eye for emotion and excitement, which has been seen in his past films “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Joseph Fiennes, known for his work in “Enemy at the Gates “and” Shakespeare in Love”, and Tom Felton of “Harry Potter” play the two primary Roman soldiers who are tasked with finding Yeshua’s body. These excellent actors lend mainstream credibility to the project.

The framing of the Gospel story as a thriller is a genius move, and making the perspective that of a scowling non-believer is even more so. It allows an audience to shed its historical hindsight and explore this story with fresh eyes. Fiennes’ performance is powerful, something to behold, as he transforms from a man of authority to a peasant seeking answers.

Ultimately, the film is a harbinger of the Gospel, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining and thrilling. Any viewer who thinks he or she is in for a dusty, boring sermon will be surprised by the very first scene: a bloody, breathtaking battle between the Romans and the Jewish “zealots.”

Make no mistake; this is a thriller, and a good one at that. Not only is this a beautiful retelling of the Gospel, but it’s also a solid movie. The audience is never preached to, and no dogma is shoved down throats. Rather, there is an unforced wisdom, a quiet guidance – just like Yeshua’s loving smile.

It is through Clavius’s interactions with characters like Mary Magdalene, Bartholomew, Simon Peter and Yeshua that the audience learns firsthand what Christianity is really all about. No sermon, no pulpit to get in the way—just a genuine relationship between Christ and the unbeliever He loves.

Maybe I’m a sap, but I was paralyzed with chills when I saw the centurion whisper “Surely this man is innocent.” Or when Clavius came face-to-face with the Messiah Himself. Or when Yeshua delivered the Great Commission and disappeared into heaven. Seeing these amazing events played out onscreen is a prolific experience for the avid moviegoer and Bible major alike.

Risen opens in theaters February 19 and is rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images.

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