Risen, 2016. Directed by Kevin Reynolds.
In a letter to his son, Tolkien speaks of experiencing an emotion he called “eucatastrophe” (from ευ- “good” and καταστροφή “destruction”). He defines the emotion in the following vivid terms: “...the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears...”; “...a sudden glimpse of Truth...”; and most graphically, “...a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.” In other words, eucatastrophe involves experiencing sudden, even jarring, relief and joy: glimpsing the true nature of things after great trial. In other words, eucatastrophe exposes Truth, not as a jagged little pill we have to swallow, grimacing at its bitterness, but as a reality that pierces us with a powerful and compelling joy: “poignant as grief.”
For Tolkien, the ultimate eucatastrophe in human history was the wholly unexpected fact of Jesus’ Resurrection, after his followers experienced what must have been one of the most brutal let-downs in history. To go from thinking someone was Yahweh, the Messiah, the Son of the Most High, in a culture whose destiny lay tremulous against the promise of help from the Almighty, then to hear of his torturous death, must have been heart-wrenching.
In Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, we are invited to remain for almost the entire length of the film in the catastrophe of the passion—albeit mitigated by the fact that we know how the story ends. In my most recent viewing of it, I was struck by what a raw, demanding, and ultimately serious movie it is, and how fitting a tone it has for such subject matter, and for the drive to repentance that it aims to instill in the viewer.
By the same token, isn’t it fitting, after the Resurrection, to have a bracing, almost giddy lightness of spirit? Isn’t the first instinct we have, after waking up from a long and terrible dream, full of nameless fears, into the banal warmth of the morning sun, to laugh with relief that what seemed so awful was actually not? This is something that The Passion of Christ, for all its merit, doesn’t speak to.
This is why I was so delighted by Risen; approaching the Resurrection from the point of view of the skeptical yet truth-driven Roman Military Tribune Clavius (played by Joseph Fiennes), its merit lies in bringing a freshness into perhaps the most oft-repeated story in modern human history, and one that is primarily known for its necessary goriness. It re-imagines the story of the crucifixion and Resurrection, lifts the “veil of familiarity” off of what is ultimately a deeply strange and unprecedented story. It doesn’t only respect the historical, Biblical account: it animates it, makes it come more tangibly alive.
Up until a certain scene in which Clavius the Roman tribune is interrogating various followers of Jesus to find out what happened to His body, the audience may think Risen is an example of a historical mystery epic that aims to strike doubt into the traditional Christian narratives. This would make it a well-done but otherwise familiar-feeling movie—one where we expect the introduction of certain sordid details to deflate the “hallowed” story of the Resurrection, and bring it down to level of our tawdry but easily understandable human intrigues.
However, this expectation is blown apart when we meet one of Jesus’ disciples for the first time: Bartholomew (of whom Jesus once proclaimed “Behold! Here is an Israelite without guile!” —essentially a simple, easily-swayed guy). We realize, in the moment where we meet Bartholomew, that this movie actually aims to treat the Resurrection seriously: as an event which has the power to effect unprecedented inner, spiritual transformation. As an event that has the power to decimate fear. The genre we thought we were watching (a grim, gritty historical epic) is turned upside down when, in a situation that should have been full of fear and betrayal—Clavius is treating a disciple to visions of painful death and torture if he doesn’t reveal the location of Jesus’ body—Bartholomew, at first shaken, ends up smiling widely in reply. And what a smile! One stupidly full of giddy hope and promise: the first real smile of the movie.
It is at this moment during the movie that I felt my spirit lifting. Here, at least, is one instance where threats of violence will not fulfill their intended goal, of riding rough-shod over all that is beautiful and good in the world. And the real man of the hour (Jesus) hasn’t yet appeared on screen! But, like a foreshadowing of the promise and power of apostolic office, Bartholomew’s presence is already bringing a taste of the new reality: Jesus’ power over death. Bartholomew’s smile at this pivotal point mirrors how the world has been turned upside down with the singularity of the event of the Resurrection, and the ultimate strangeness of it against our typical human experience.
It is significant that the story is changed and touched with a growing vein of warmth and lightness of spirit when one of Christ’s ordained shows up on screen, one who himself was first touched by a paradigm-shifting, transformative experience of Jesus’ presence. Up until the scene where Bartholomew appears, the movie operates on the familiar logic of brutality, power, authority, woundedness, and casual horror. This logic is exemplified in the two Roman guards’ slavish, dogged obedience to every command of their superiors, and exemplified by the rigid insistence on physical purity that the Jews held.
Some people have leveled the criticism against Risen that it does not have enough gravitas. They say that Bartholomew himself is a bumbling, grinning idiot, that there is far too much laughing, far too many jokes from the apostles, and altogether too much humor throughout the movie. But, as a priest I know puts it, “laughter is a minor exorcism”: so long as it is true, congenial, and unaffected laughter. Mourning has its place, one that should never be elided, because the pearl of the Christian message was born in the heart of suffering. But neither should we forget that which Chesterton encapsulated when he said “angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly.” In Risen, we have the privilege of witnessing part of the transformation of the weary and ultra-serious Roman Military Tribune, from someone who deals out grisly threats, to someone who reels in shock at the eucatastrophe of Jesus’ unexpected reappearance. The one whom he saw hanging on the cross, face contorted with anguish, is now gazing at him and inviting him—and all of us—in on the joke. Let’s allow this to inspire us to meet the eucatastrophe of Jesus’ Resurrection as if for the first time—and see all the other catastrophes in our lives as ones that are, with his help, about to turn.
Michalina Ratajczak holds an MA in Literature from the University of Toronto. She is a writer and proud aunt to four beautiful nieces.