I admit — I’m intrigued by the mixed reviews for Kevin Reynolds’s Risen that are coming in from reliably discerning friends and film critics.

I believe art exists to invite us to explore questions. When it sharpens its intent to “deliver a message,” it ceases to be art, and I lose interest. Thus, most “Chrstian movies” — as well as most movies about Biblical subjects — don’t interest me. They come across as manipulative salesmanship, or as preaching to the choir.

But when a movie about Jesus gets some admiration from the religious-press reviewers who understand the nature and purpose of art, and when it also gets some praise from film scholars who have consistently offered rewarding perspectives, I’m ready to buy a ticket. Well… at least a matinee ticket.

Steven Greydanus (at National Catholic Register) says Risen is better in the early going, showing us the Passion “from a decidedly unfamiliar perspective. Risen might be the only Jesus film in which we first encounter Jesus on the cross, already dead or nearly so.” He’s disappointed that the film’s Jesus “says nothing very surprising,” and asks, “Shouldn’t the risen Lord sound more profound than Yoda or Aragorn?” But then he concludes with this:

For all its issues, Risen remains more interesting in some ways than a straightforward dramatization of the Gospel story like Son of God. It’s far from fully satisfying, but for devout viewers its strengths may outweigh the defects.

Peter Chattaway offers a close scene-by-scene reading of the film. In his review at FilmChat, which he published first, he invokes Roger Ebert:

Movies, as Roger Ebert liked to say, are empathy machines, and one of the great things about Risen for its first hour or so is how it allows us to imagine what it would have been like to be on the outside of this story. After the big turning point in the upper room, however, it becomes very much an insider’s story — and one that assumes the audience’s familiarity with the back-story…. Instead of opening up the story to non-believers, it feels like the filmmakers are, by this point, ticking off a list of familiar stories that believers would want to see.

That said, there is still a lot to like about Risen. It’s an imaginative and reasonably grounded take on an old story, and it just might encourage people — both inside the church and out — to step outside their comfort zones a little and imagine how the world looks from the other side’s point of view. And that is no small thing.

Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com agrees that Risen‘s first half works, but the second half “resorts to pictorial cliches you associate with kitschy religious art and lets its story devolve into a series of clunky set-pieces.” But he finds plenty to admire:

Although the filmmaking in Risen isn’t at the same high level as that of The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ, it’s on the same creative wavelength. We’re not hearing a genteel sermon delivered from the pulpit of in an air-conditioned megachurch, but the harsher phrasing of a street preacher.

Bilge Ebiri (at Vulture) writes:

While nobody will mistake [Kevin Reynolds] for Martin Scorsese, his films usually demonstrate a nice mix of atmosphere and grit. He tells mythic, heroic stories, but he usually finds convincing ways into them, placing us in these worlds.

That works well in Risen … until it doesn’t. As you might expect, the God stuff eventually becomes more pronounced. This is a film produced by Sony’s faith-based handle Affirm Films and aimed at the evangelical market, so we do get some (clunky) pyrotechnics and worshipful looks by the time it’s all over. But still, for a film that could have easily become bogged down in Sunday School reverence, or culture-war opportunism, Risen presents an intriguing, oblique approach to a Bible movie.

Also: Alissa Wilkinson interviewed Joseph Fiennes at Christianity Today.

And it’s worth remembering: Brian Godawa described the movie as “a Christian apologist’s wet dream.” Huh. I’ve heard sermons that would incline me to believe that’s a bad review.

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