Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus[) Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
Director and co-writer Kevin Reynolds have come up with what amounts to a First Century police procedural film that is very appropriate for this Lenten/Easter season. As I watched it I felt that we were looking at a fifth gospel, scriptwriter Reynolds skillfully blending the canonical gospel accounts printed above into his fictional story of a Roman tribune assigned to track down the body of the crucified Nazarene that has embarrassingly disappeared from its guarded tomb.
The talented Joseph Fiennes portrays the battle-hardened Roman Tribune Clavius, whom we first see leading his soldiers against a band of Jewish revolutionaries entrenched on a hill top. This is an excellent scene showing the use of a Roman formation called the tortoise in which most of the soldiers hold their interlocking shields above their heads while advancing. This effectively blocks the heavy stones and spears hurled at them from above, while the soldiers in front, protected by their own shields, are able to thrust at the enemy. Their short swords are designed for such close combat, the longer swords of their enemies being unwieldy. Soon the Jews are defeated, with Clavius himself killing the captured chieftain.
Back in Jerusalem Clavius does not even have the time to wash away the blood from his face when he is summoned by Governor Pilate (Peter Firth). Pilate orders him to go out and insure that the Nazarene whom he has just condemned dies more speedily by breaking his legs. The three condemned are already up on their crosses, the latter being the probable Tau-shaped crosses rather than the Roman T-shaped ones popularized by artists. Also the execution site is more realistic than most, located right outside the walls of Jerusalem in the small valley that also served as a trash dump.
The grieving women and jeering crowds are kept back by soldiers as Clavius and his newly appointed assistant Lucius (Tom Felton) ride out to oversee what they regard as a routine execution. The order is given to break the prisoners’ legs, but before the soldier can use his iron bar on those of Yeshua (his Hebrew name is used), the crucified one has already did. The brutality of such executions is shown by the way the soldiers drop the crosses to the ground and then drag the corpses over to the shallow pit where bodies and bones of previously executed prisoners lie strewn about, covered with lime. Before the body of Yeshua is so treated, Joseph of Arimathea arrives with his note of permission from Pilate to take and bury Jesus’ body.
There follows the events as recorded in the gospels, the burial and sealing of the tomb, the request of high priest Caiaphas (Stephen Greif) for the guard detail, and then an added scene of the two guards drinking from the leather bottle that one had brought along. To the filmmakers’ credit they do not use any special effects to actually show the Resurrection, as was lamentably done in The Bible and Son of God—in other words, no ninja angel atop the tomb with flaming sword.
Pilate is very disturbed by the report that the body has disappeared. He would have executed the two guards but they have been given sanctuary by the priests. He is very worried about any possible disorder because the Emperor Tiberius is enroute for an inspection tour of Judaea. He orders Clavius to use every means to find the body before it decomposes too much to be recognized. Roman soldiers spread throughout the city, kicking down doors, and bringing Jews before Clavius. Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) is one such prisoner. Yes, the old story that she had been a prostituted is maintained, this time for a touch of humor—when Clavius asks his soldiers if any of them could identify her, first one, then another, and finally all of the men raise their hands. She proves to be a very different woman than he had expected, courageously testifying that Yeshua is very much alive. So do Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan) and Peter (Stewart Scudamore), the latter even welcoming the Roman, telling him that they are not enemies.
The pivotal point in Clavius’s spiritual development is reached when he breaks into the room where all of the disciples are gathered. He is stunned to see gazing at him the countenance of the man whom he had seen die on the cross a few days earlier, Yeshua himself (Cliff Curtis). There is no trace of fear or hostility, just a smiling man bidding the Roman welcome. Clavius, having dropped his sword, hastily tells his men outside to stand down. By the time Yeshua has shown doubting Thomas his wounds, Clavius’s own convictions have fallen away. He now forsakes all of his old connections, going AWOL to follow the band of disciples when, prompted by Mary Magdalene, they leave Jerusalem and go for their appointed meeting with their risen Lord in Galilee.
This is a far better film than most of those that deal with men affected by Christ—The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, even Ben Hur—in that there is no cloying piety. Clavius is a realist caught up in an enigma when he says, “I have seen two things which cannot reconcile: A man dead without question, and that same man alive again. I pursue Him, the Nazarene, to ferret the truth.” There is a note of ambiguity at the end when the twelve disciples scatter, obeying the command of their Lord just before his Ascension, to spread the good news of his resurrection. Another plus for the film is the way the disciples are depicted. By the time we see them they have been transformed from their despairing shame over their failure to stand by their Lord, to the joyful attitude resulting from his Easter appearances. They laugh a lot. As this film shows, they have plenty to laugh about, bearing out the old dictum that (s)he “who laughs last laughs best.” The laugh is on Pilate, the priests, and the mocking crowd who thought they were all powerful.* However, their power ends at the grave. Yeshua’s resurrection reveals a far greater power, one that can reach out and welcome into fellowship even a hardened cynic like Clavius. The film, of course, will appeal mainly to believers, but for others it does a good job in showing why many people claim this Man as the central figure in human history.
*For more on laughter and The Resurrection see my new blog, which is a reprint of an article I wrote years ago for Presbyterians Today, “Exit Laughing,” which explores the story of Christ as tragedy and comedy.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the March 2015 issue of VP.