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Posted: 23 February 2016

New movie Risen (Sony Pictures, 117 mins) dramatically tells the story of the days immediately after the death of Jesus – as seen through the eyes of the Romans who crucified him. Where other biblical epics make Jesus their central character, Risen puts Roman tribune Clavius in the leading role, as he investigates the most famous ever disappearance of a dead body.

The result is a movie where the resurrection of Jesus is recast as a detective story. The empty tomb of Christ is treated as a crime scene. The disciples of Jesus are caught up in ‘the manhunt that changed the course of human history’, in the words of the movie poster. One film critic describes it as ‘Law and Order: Judean Desert 33 AD’.

‘I’d describe it as the greatest murder mystery ever written,’ says Joseph Fiennes, who plays Clavius (pictured below), the Roman soldier who sees Jesus crucified and who is increasingly alarmed as the events of the next few days unfold. Clavius is put under pressure to solve the case by Pontius Pilate, who fears unrest and violence on the streets of Jerusalem, not to mention an impending visit from the Roman emperor.

Photo of Clavius from the film Risen

Risen is not the first movie to tell the story of Jesus from a Roman vantage point. 1953 movie The Robe took the point of view of a Roman soldier at the foot of the cross, dicing for Jesus’s robe. But where The Robe asked the question, ‘What happened to that soldier?’ Risen asks the bigger question: ‘What happened to the body of Jesus after the crucifixion?’

The central plot of the movie picks up and runs with a story told in the Gospel of Matthew, where the Jewish leaders alert Pilate to something Jesus said before he was killed: ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Pilate gives orders to secure the tomb of Jesus. As Matthew tells it: ‘“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.’

When the tomb is discovered empty the next morning, Matthew says the guards were bribed to say: ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ This dramatic episode triggers the investigation and the pursuit of the disciples in Risen.

Joseph Fiennes says he took the role because he liked the way it brought an investigative edge to the biblical story. When he first read the script, he thought, ‘It is noir film meets the Bible, and I thought, this is a fresh, new angle, and I’m in, I’m hooked.’

The makers of Risen will be hoping audiences feel the same way.

Risen opens in UK cinemas on 18 March

Follow this link for community resources for Risen, produced by Damaris Media

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Photos at the top of this column by:
Taro Taylor and Jon Sullivan