What This Catholic Saw At the Movie “Risen”
He was steady, to say the least.
And he needed to be.
As a Roman military tribune in service of Emperor Tiberius Caesar and, more specifically, Caesar’s prefect in Judea Pontius Pilate, Clavius (played by Joseph Fiennes) survived on a delicate blend of duty, courage and equanimity. The Roman Emperor gloried in his ever-growing and ever-submissive Empire. Pontius Pilate chafed at being relegated to the dusty outpost of Palestine, yet sought to assert ruthless control to achieve a lofty transfer. And, meanwhile, the proud Jewish people offered stubborn resistance and deep religious resentment to their pagan Roman occupiers.
Clavius needed to be steady.
Oh, don’t be mistaken. He was a man of Rome. Trained in the merciless craft of soldiering and military leadership, he took lives when he was asked. And yet he didn’t revel in it. It was a matter of duty. In one scene after a particularly vicious day, Clavius reclines in a warming pool shared with Pilate who engages him in conversation. Noticing his ambition, Pilate inquires (not without a touch of warmth and comradeship), what he is seeking. Clavius returns, “Power, position, stature, wealth”. But when pressed again and yet again, Pilate draws from him that the end of his desires resides in “a home in the country, a day without death.” Pilate’s parting words, again sympathetic but forlorn, ask, “Isn’t there an easier way?”
Clavius was steady.
Which is why he was selected to look into a curious affair. A man some dubbed “King of the Jews” had been crucified on Pilate’s order. The Jewish religious elite of the day worried that the man’s claims to rise from the dead may tempt disciples to steal his body and declare a resurrection. Such an event would undermine the religious status quo and threaten the stability of the Roman province. The dilemma of the religious elite now became the dilemma of the Roman prefect. Pilate would order the tomb to be sealed and guarded. And Clavius would see to it.
But this wouldn’t be the first time Clavius would encounter the “King of the Jews”. In fact, he found himself arriving on the scene shortly after the condemned man died. Among the many punishments and executions Clavius had seen or ordered in his military career, it was this Nazarene hanging from the cross that perplexed him most. Dead after a mere six hours. An array of natural oddities followed including earth tremors that crumbled fortress walls and the inexplicable blotting of the midday sun. Enigmatic last words were relayed to Clavius, “It is finished.” A seasoned centurion reduced to tears at what he lamented was a grand injustice, “Surely, this man was innocent!” And then there was simply something about this man. As his horse sauntered to the blood-soaked cross’ foot, Clavius peered up. Dead to be sure, the Nazarene’s eyes stared blankly back. But there was something. Something.
It was this man’s body that Clavius was to secure.
But the steady Clavius would fail.
Here the Roman tribune Clavius would become part of the story – part of the greatest event the world has ever know: the irrepressible God breaking from the bonds and fetters of Death. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it would change everything.
What would this event look like to a Roman military leader? How would he reconcile all he had known of the vicious machinations for power and the capricious will of countless Roman gods with this vexing event? What would happen if the narrative crafted by religious and political powers was upended by an increasingly stunning, yet unimpeachable narrative from shaken tomb guards and utterly transformed disciples? And what if a steady, accomplished Roman tribune witnessed something that shook him to his core and changed everything?
That is the story of Risen.
Clavius, though he is a Roman occupier and well-versed in the brutal, is a rather sympathetic character. A man of few words, but innumerable gifts, he communicates volumes with a simple cocked eyebrow or pensive stare (or, as a good friend once pointed out for me, like Michael Kitchen playing Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle in the British series Foyle’s War). He serves his opposite Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) who, lost in exasperated management and tireless political calculation, helps illuminate Clavius as an honest and diligent servant of Rome.
But it is this honesty that enables Clavius to truly consider what has happened to this man, Yeshua of Nazareth. He finds himself at the point of asking dangerously penetrating questions of guards, disciples and street rabble and even praying to the God of the Hebrews for insight (as just one of the many gods in a Roman citizen’s life). Clavius has begun a journey so aptly described by Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor,
“Discovering the Church is apt to be a slow procedure but it can take place if you have a free mind and no vested interest in disbelief.”
And so, in Risen, Clavius the Roman tribune and confidant of Pilate, fluent in the macabre art of crucifixion and at ease slaying an enemy of Rome, a sinner to be sure, encounters God and finds himself humbly yet certainly changed forever. And while he encounters the extraordinary and observes the inexplicable, his journey is quite Lenten. Desert places of mystery, temptation and uncertainty are punctuated by the sweetest moments of assurance that foster confidence – faith – for the road ahead.
And, finally, for a moment – and forever – under the midnight sky atop a craggy hill in Galilee, Clavius the steady, finds that he has arrived. In a way he never imagined, in a place he hardly conceived. Reclining in the presence of Love Incarnate, Clavius found his home in the country, a day without death.
You see, that’s what I saw at the movie Risen. It is not only that Christ has risen – this Miracle of Miracles. But the sinner, Clavius, has risen too. Pulled from the wreckage of his sinful, unbelieving life…called from disbelief, distrust, dislocation and death, Clavius is transformed. And redeemed.
Just like us.
Risen is an exquisite tale of trial, conversion and redemption.
Boy, did I need that.