Risen cover image

Risen: Faith-based Filmmaking Done Right

This week I’ve been working out how to make a snood, a type of hair net worn by long-haired ladies for centuries but particularly useful on the American frontier and for reenactors who need to hide their short hair. Especially when working with super-fine cotton yarn, I have to be very careful and precise about placing my stitches and deciding on the sequence of rows in order to make the netting come out right.  My mother’s been trying for a year to find a pattern on the Internet that works, but so far she’s gotten nothing but messes.

I bring this up because as I’ve mentioned in the past, C. S. Lewis argues in his essay “On Stories” that a story is like a net used to catch something else that isn’t necessarily defined by the structural elements of the story.  What that ‘something else’ is can vary greatly, of course, and can have an effect on the form, but unless the net is well made, it won’t catch anything at all.  Similarly, he argues in “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said” that it’s almost impossible to start with a particular idea for a moral and build the story around it; for the story to be any good, the story itself has to come first, and the moral will generally make itself known in the end product.

The former is the trap into which many filmmakers fall when they set out to make a film to promote a particular ideology, whatever that ideology might be, and end up making a major mess. The latter is the approach that’s needed—and is, incidentally, the approach advocated in Taliesin Nexus’ workshops from the first session on.  A well-crafted story will attract viewers and provoke discussions better than preachiness.  And that is where Sony’s newest faith-based film, Risen, shines.  The film works precisely because it takes a well-known story, that of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and presents it afresh through outsider POV without crossing the line into preachiness.

In one sense, because Risen is historical fiction in the vein of books like Johnny Tremain, the hard work of devising the plot and the characters is already done for Kevin Reynolds and Paul Aiello, the film’s screenwriters.  In another, the task of inventing the new characters of Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) and Lucius (Tom Felton) and fleshing out secondary characters from the background of the Gospels is even harder because the film’s focus doesn’t allow for the establishment of much backstory.  Yet Clavius and Lucius are well enough realized as characters, both through the script and through the acting, that even small moments show us who they are and what they think without expository dialogue.  One great example is the scene where Lucius is safely back at Pilate’s palace after accompanying Clavius to inspect the charnel pit at Golgotha and is still gagging on the smell of death that apparently lingers in his nose.  Clavius takes pity on the greenhorn and suggests a remedy to settle his stomach—and then points out rather flatly that he’ll get used to the stench eventually.  Although these characters are fictional, they strike the viewer as real people with lives beyond the frame of the story, so much so that I left the theater already imagining further adventures for Clavius.

From the Risen Facebook page
From the Risen Facebook page

The focus of the story isn’t Clavius as a man, however, but rather the period from Good Friday to the Ascension, and especially the race to find the missing body before it could decay beyond recognition. That’s also why Risen never presents the Gospel message, that Jesus died for the remission of sins, per se.  Instead, it presents what most Christian liturgies call “the mystery of the faith”:

Christ has died.
Christ has risen.
Christ is coming again.

In the process, the story challenges the viewer to ask more questions and to take the discussion itself beyond the frame of the story. If Jesus is dead, then why couldn’t the Roman authorities locate the body?  But if Jesus has risen, what are the implications?  Some viewers have found fault with this approach, but to me, it’s effective in avoiding the heavy-handed approach of many other faith-based films.

Alas, space doesn’t permit a more detailed review; for that, I can recommend Tyler O’Neil’s article on PJ Media. But if we’re going to smash cut the culture away from the values of Hollyweird, we need more films like Risen that use a well-crafted net of story to catch an important truth and the viewers’ imaginations at the same time.  It’s a fiddly task sometimes, but when the result is beautiful as well as true and good, it’s worth the effort.

Elisabeth G. Wolfe

Elisabeth G. Wolfe, from Llano, Texas, is an alumna of the 2012 Taliesin Nexus Filmmakers Workshop. She is also a freelance translator and editor, indie historical fiction novelist, and adjunct professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida.