Risen and the Necessary Evolution of Faith-Based Filmmaking

On its own, Risen isn’t anything to write home about. It’s an interesting enough idea for sure, refitting the duo cop film with the sheen of a classical biblical epic. It turns the two cops into Roman soldiers, Clavius, the bad cop, (Joseph Fiennes) and Lucius, the good cop (Tom Felton). Their mystery? Finding the missing corpse of Jesus Christ before his disciples claim that he’s the risen messiah and cause a whole lot of trouble for Rome.

Of course, it’s absolutely not a spoiler (given roughly 2000 years of history) to tell you that Jesus (Cliff Curtis) has in fact risen from the dead and to tell you that, in the end, Clavius comes around to believe him to be the messiah. It’s a Christian film, and that’s absolutely how every one of these films work. As a standard film, Risen is okay and puts a new skin on an old set of clichés.

But let’s take it in the light of a recent slate of faith-based films that have made an impact over the last few years. Films like God’s Not Dead, Heaven is For Real, and War Room have made waves within the Christian community and the box office.

This all began with 2008’s Fireproof, a Kirk Cameron-starring pan of pornography’s influence on marriage through the eyes of a firefighter, which ended up making $33 million on a budget of $500,000, becoming the highest grossing independent film of its year. All this despite receiving fairly negative reviews.

Since then, a number of films with a similar focus, to appeal to the Christian audience, have been released with similarly negative results. And while there have been those who explain this away as bias, that’s possibly one of the worst reactions that Christians could have, because it doesn’t get to the root of why there was such a negative critical reaction and why these films aren’t reaching outside of their Christian audience.

In the most basic of ways, the movies are negatively reviewed because they’re not very good.

In a more complicated way, it’s because they’re not very good for those who aren’t ready to go in singing their praises because their pastor or their favorite Christian blog told them to go out and support it. They’re exceedingly insular, “Wink-wink-nudge-nudge” films that do nothing to challenge Christians and nothing to affirm anything to nonbelievers willing to hear the film out.

These are films that look low-budget, act low-budget, and are so ready and expecting for their audience to champion them based on their theological backgrounds that they think it’s more than possible to eschew the basics of filmic entertainment.

In the most literal of examples, take Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. It’s a film that ended up having the kid from Growing Pains give functionally a film lecture a about how people are warring against Christmas. In what world does that qualify as film, much less an important one for Christians to see? Or take God’s Not Dead. Filmed like a TV-movie, written like a middle-school writing assignment, and starring actors who peaked on ‘90s television, before it mattered if you could act or not. In what world is that a film that deserves to ask its audience to text every person they know its title?

It’s cynicism, plain and simple. Sure, it’s couched in holy robes, and claims to be giving an audience an authentic representation of their lives. But if you want to know the true purpose, wait for the Group Ticket Sales number at the end of the trailer. Google “film name lesson plan” and find out what most of these folks want to do. Every blockbuster sells toys, but they don’t claim moral authority by doing it.

Now, how did we get to this point? And how do we fix it? After all, films with Christian themes have included Superman, Taxi Driver, Hail Caesar! and countless more. Filmmakers like John Hillcoat, Wim Wenders and the singularly brilliant Andrei Tarkovsky have all infused Christian thought into their brilliant works. It isn’t as though Christianity is anathema to film. On the contrary, film is a medium uniquely capable of capturing the introspection, awe and power inherent to God in the Christian conception.

And therein lies the problem. Christian filmmakers know the power of God, but they ignore the power of film. Somewhere along the way they forgot how to wield the camera as a pen, crafting a philosophical treatise, and started using it as a camcorder, capturing another Sunday school lesson.

And this is how we come back to Risen. In its flaws, it has one quality that makes it stand out above other Christian films. It’s a damn film! It has a story that isn’t reliant upon your interest in the minutia of Christian doctrine or your fear of the World. It has actors that are trying to make actual characters, not just archetypes to dance in.

And it wants to show God through filmmaking techniques. Jesus is mysterious, Jesus is powerful. Jesus is bathed in light and shot in a way that no one else is shot. He feels different, and it’s a more potent punch than all the mid-level TV actors telling you how great God is.

It’s the kind of film that faith-based films need to be. They need to be grounded in actual filmmaking, knowing that the power of the medium can convey the power of the message. Risen is an attempt at an entertaining movie first, and a Christian film second.

Because that’s what Christians deserve. The current crop of Christian films are cynical, exploitative. They ride on the audience and insular culture in the hopes of scoring a few big bucks and positive quotes from conservative outlets. Demand something better.

Faith has brought us films like Wings of Desire and Stalker. Why should Christian audiences settle for Fireproof and God’s Not Dead?