April 21, 2019


EASTER MOVIES: "HAIL CAESAR!" AND "RISEN" (Michael De Sapio, April 19th, 2019, Imaginative Conservative)

Visual symbols are used tellingly throughout the film. Hourglasses reflect the fleeting nature of time, and the evergreen plant that Clavius rubs his fingers against to destroy the smell of blood is just one of the many motifs (like water and white clothes) that signal eternal life and the advent of the Christian faith. As Clavius inches ever closer toward conversion--hindered at times by a sycophantic second-in-command named Lucius--he becomes an everyman, a symbol of all of us as we grope our way toward God.

But Clavius assisted at Jesus' crucifixion, ordering his side to be pierced to speed his death. Although at first acting as a mere minion of Pilate, Clavius finds himself drawn into question Jesus' identity and curious as to whether this figure can give him the spiritual sustenance that his own culture is no longer able to provide.

As he interviews Mary Magdalene, the apostle Bartholomew, and the soldiers who guarded Jesus' tomb on the night before the Resurrection, Clavius feels his defenses cracking and himself wondering whether this incredible mystery could possibly be true.

The search culminates in the astonishing moment when Clavius discovers Jesus--very much alive--in a cave with his disciples. Clavius continues to follow from afar, finally encountering Jesus face to face on a rocky cliff overlooking the sea. Viewers may differ as to whether the film fulfills expectations in portraying the world-shattering personality of Christ; but Risen is not meant as a treatise on Christology. It is instead a conversion story couched as "the greatest detective story ever told," and in that it succeeds.

Through the intelligent writing, we get a world-historical view of the story of Jesus; we see not only the coming of one man to faith in Christ, but anticipate the rebirth of an entire civilization. One of my favorite moments in this vein comes toward the end. Clavius has gone off to follow the risen Jesus and his apostles, and Pilate has sent a search party to bring him back. When they turn up empty-handed, Pilate turns toward the sea and declares with sublime inaccuracy, "I doubt we'll ever hear from them again."

And who is to say that a Clavius couldn't have existed? According to the Gospels, one Roman centurion professed faith in Jesus' healing powers, another declared his divinity at the foot of the cross. Perhaps one or both of these men took Clavius' path toward Christ. After all, "there were also many other things which Jesus did" which would fill endless books (and screenplays).

One of the best scenes comes when Clavius is interrogating disciples and threatens Bartholomew with crucifixion.  Bartholomew, kind of a knucklehead, welcomes it, until Clavius explains the suffering involved in excruciating (literally) detail. As we saw when Mel Gibson released his Passion, there's a strong desire to ignore the Cross and skip straight to the risen Christ, as if the experience was no big deal, just a necessary step.  But this warps understanding of events and of the nature of the post-Cross God.

Posted by at April 21, 2019 7:45 AM