I usually go into Biblical movies wondering, "Okay, how are they going to screw this up?" My expectations are low, and my skepticism is high. Because the Bible is the one thing I'm a purist about, and it's rare that a mainstream movie gets things right.
Also, lately "Biblical" movies like Noah (2014) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) have been so screwed up -- filmmakers seem to be trying to make Bible stories "more interesting" in recent years. And they choose the oddest stories to "improve" too, because come on, Noah and Moses? Two deeply fascinating people already. There's plenty of factual material to work with -- you don't need to add stuff. But filmmakers haven't seen things that way.
So, to be honest, I went into this thinking, "Why do we need another movie about Jesus told from a Roman soldier's point of view? We already have The Robe. This has been done already."
I was so wrong.
It opens with a Roman tribune, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), skillfully directing his soldiers as they put down an insurrection. He returns to his barracks in Jerusalem and doesn't even get a chance to wash the blood from his hands and face before Pilate (Peter Firth) summons him to go break the legs of this Jewish dude and a couple thieves Pilate has crucified so they die quickly.
Clavius does as he's told, because he's a good and obedient soldier. He's ambitious and plans to climb the army ranks until he's important enough to live in Rome. He takes care ensuring the crucified men die, then that their bodies are dealt with. But in the morning, Pilate summons him again. The Jewish religious leaders are worried because the dead dude, Yeshua (Cliff Curtis), foretold he would die and then rise again on the third day. They don't want his followers stealing his body, claiming a resurrection, and stirring up all kinds of trouble. Pilate doesn't want that either because Caesar himself is coming on a little inspection tour in a couple of weeks, and the last thing Pilate needs is another riot. So he sends Clavius to make sure the body is still in the tomb, seal it up, and set a guard.
Clavius does as he's told, once again.
And we all know what comes next. Sunday morning, no body. Tomb empty, seals broken, ropes burst, guards freaked out, and definitely no body.
This is where it gets REALLY GOOD. Clavius gets tasked with finding out what happened here, so it becomes a kind of un-murder mystery for a bit. He interviews witnesses. He hunts down the disciples and questions them. And nothing makes sense with what he knows about the natural order of things. People who should be afraid aren't. People who should be mourning are joyful. A person whose dead body Clavius saw taken off a cross (and Clavius, being a seasoned veteran, knows a dead body when he sees one) is alive.
Yup, Clavius encounters Jesus, or Yeshua as they call him here, which was his Hebrew name. And he starts to wonder. You can see him struggle to wrap his head around how this could be. He starts hanging out with the disciples, hungry to see Yeshua again. Trying to make sense of all this.
At this point, the movie slows down a bit and switches from un-murder mystery to some serious character exploration. If you were hoping for swords-and-sandals action, you might be disappointed. If you wanted to see a serious exploration of what happens when an unbeliever is confronted with the truth about Jesus, you won't be disappointed at all. Especially since Joseph Fiennes does such an amazing job of conveying this character's doubts, worries, fears, questions, and the beginning flickerings of faith, often wordlessly. It's a beautiful performance.
Tom Felton is also well cast as Clavius' underling, Lucius. I'm so used to him playing Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies, and that association worked well in this case because I kept expecting him to turn against Clavius, work against him, be all devious.
I have only two minor quibbles with this movie. The first is not unexpected: there's never any mention of WHY Jesus came to earth. They do affirm that he is God incarnate, and that his resurrection means those who believe in him will have eternal life. But there's no mention of mankind's sinfulness, no discussion of the forgiveness of sins. I was a little disappointed, but considering that this is a movie and not a sermon, I can overlook it. Would have been nice to have had that, but I'm okay with it not being there.
My other quibble is the way they portrayed Jesus' ascension. Instead of him rising up into the air "until a cloud hid him from sight" like it says in Acts 1:9, he just disappeared in a big ball of light. And angels didn't come and ask why they were standing around staring up into the sky. So I guess they were going more for what it says in Mark 16:19, just that he was "taken up into heaven," and less about "ascending," but it did work okay. Like I said, minor quibbles.
Is this movie family-friendly? The first 5 minutes or so, where Clavius is putting down the insurrection, does have a good bit of violence. Lots of slashing and stabbing, very little blood shown. It's mostly implied violence. There's also the breaking of the crucified thieves' legs and them yelling and shrieking and then dying -- it's not something for little kids. I'd say thirteen and above, depending on the teen. There's nothing really gory like in The Passion of the Christ (2004), but parts are a little intense. Also, they talk about Mary Magdalene having been a woman of the street, and that lots of soldiers know who she is. There's some drinking. I won't take my kids to this, but I'll probably buy a copy on DVD and watch it with them when they're older.
This is my 6th movie watched and reviewed for the Period Drama Challenge. There aren't a lot of pictures available online yet, but here are a few I've found that show some of the costumes and sets. I was very impressed by this film's production values -- the costumes, props, sets, and scenery are fantastic!
Here's Pilate, with Clavius in the background:
Caiaphas (Stephen Greif) and another member of the Sanhedrin (I assume):
Clavius and some of the disciples:
Clavius and Lucius in their armor:
Their red capes were especially nice, but I can't find any good pictures of them. This one shows Clavius' a little: