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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Easter’s rising tide of faith-based movies no mystery


Gerald SchmitzRisen
The Young Messiah
Miracles From Heaven

Get ready for another wave of commercial Hollywood movies hoping to cash in on the paschal season in the Christian calendar. The good news is that they are much superior to the god-awful Gods of Egypt which deservedly tanked at the box office. The less good news is that, in aiming to please the faithful, they offer little in terms of a deeper exploration of the meaning of faith.

That Christian targeting is made quite explicit by Rory Bruer, Sony Pictures’ president of worldwide distribution. As he told TheWrap, faith-based film “helps bring a whole other audience to the movies, which is something we all want and . . . is really good for our business.” This is then pitched to a broader audience by the theatre chains. For example, a promotional blurb from Cineplex promises that: “These films all deal with religion in different ways, and can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of personal faith.” In other words, expect movies that are inoffensive and unchallenging.

Risen (, the first to be released, comes from Affirm Films, the Christian division of Sony Pictures. The pivotal character is not Jesus, called “Yeshua” (Cliff Curtis), but the Legion commander Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), loyal tribune of Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), the nervous Roman in charge of Judea. The movie opens at the time of the crucifixion as Clavius is otherwise occupied slaughtering rebellious Jewish zealots. He gets no rest, being sent by Pilate to the execution site to finish the job. The earthquakes and other biblical allusions occur.

We get an abbreviated version of how the Jewish religious authorities have conspired to have the Nazarene “messiah” eliminated once and for all despite his promise to “rise on the third day.” Their concern to make sure the body of Christ stays dead and buried is shared by Pilate who wants order restored before an imminent visit of the emperor Tiberius. Although Sanhedrin member Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus’ disciples are allowed to take his body for burial, Clavius gets to oversee securing the entombment sealed by a huge rock with guards posted to prevent any body snatching.

Of course as we know the body disappears as though the tomb was blasted open. Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) makes an appearance and word circulates of sightings of the risen Yeshua even as the frightened disciples are hunkered down wondering what to do. Anxious to put a stop to the rumours spreading of divine resurrection, Pilate sends Clavius and his soldiers on a fruitless search to come up with a crucified corpse he can present to squelch the stories. What happens instead is that while watching the disciples with suspicion, Clavius is present when the risen Lord appears to them. From persecutor, the heathen warrior undergoes a conversion, casts off his armour and becomes himself a follower. He even observes Christ’s ascension into heaven, visualized here as a fantastical absorption into the sun rising over the horizon.

To put it mildly, Risen, filmed in Spain and Malta, features a good deal of invention as though the gospel accounts needed some extra confirmation by introducing the witness of a hardened skeptical Roman solider. (A much deeper probing of the last days of Jesus and the empty tomb is Story of Judas by French-Algerian actor-director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, which screened at the Toronto Film Festival last year. But it’s very unlikely to get any significant North America theatrical release.)

Risen’s added new testament won’t test anyone’s faith given its reverential intentions. That is the polar opposite from Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael’s absurdist satire “Le tout nouveau testament” (The Brand New Testament), which premiered at the Cannes festival last May to strong reviews. It portrays God as a cranky middle-aged man living in Brussels with a frumpy wife and unruly young daughter. Older brother “JC” is a statue that periodically comes to life. Those wacky proceedings are not meant to be taken seriously unless one lacks a sense of humour. Still, I would not recommend it to the easily perturbed.

There’s no fear of any Christian backlash from our second faith movie The Young Messiah (, adapted from the 2005 Anne Rice novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by director/co-writer Cyrus Nowrasteh and Betsy Nowrasteh. The filmmakers have taken no chances by holding advance screenings for select American faith leaders including Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley whose promotional blurb calls it “captivating, inspiring and deeply moving.” Rice returned to the Catholic Church in 1998 but is a controversial figure. Her book is a reverential imagining of one year in the boyhood of Jesus from age seven, necessarily inventive since we know almost nothing of detail from the gospel accounts of these early years. A first attempt to bring the novel to the screen was shelved in 2009. With the Iranian-American Nowrasteh at the helm, who has described himself as “Muslim by birth, Christian by marriage, and Jewish by inclination,” this version stays faithful to the book’s biblical spirit.

The Israel of the boy Jesus Bar-Joseph (Adam Greaves-Neal) is torn by civil strife and suffering under brutal Roman rule. Well-known actor Sean Bean plays a Roman commander, Severus. The holy family has had to flee to Alexandria, Egypt, to escape the murderous wrath of King Herod. When Jesus is seven they return from Egypt to Nazareth while still facing considerable dangers. Although the older Herod has died, his son of the same name (Jonathan Bailey) is just as anxious to eliminate any potential messiah. Jesus has yet to make his presence known in the temple in Jerusalem but it is evident from supernatural abilities that he is no ordinary boy. At the same time, Joseph (Vincent Walsh) and Mary (Sara Lazzaro) wrestle with how to relate to their miraculously conceived son. As Joseph puts it rather awkwardly: “How do you explain God to his own son?” Indeed.

The fictional stuff, largely filmed in Italy, is at least biblically based and the filmmakers ambitious intentions notably faith driven. As Nowrasteh puts it: “While we hope that our film finds a place alongside other Jesus classics, it’s more important to us that it inspires people to visit, or revisit, the Jesus story from a fresh new angle. As believers, we hope that children will be attracted by another child’s story — Jesus’ story — and that this can be a Passion of the Christ for the entire family. We even hope that, in some small way, our film leads viewers to the transformation and grace that Jesus extends to us all.”

The third faith feature, Patricia Riggen’s Miracles from Heaven, in theatres March 16, is like Heaven is for Real (2014), a purported story of a child’s seemingly miraculous recovery from a near-death experience. The story is based on the eponymous book by the child’s mother, Christy Beam, which carries the subtitle A Little Girl, Her Journey to Heaven, and Her Amazing Story of Healing. In Burleson, Texas, 10-year-old Annabel (Kylie Rogers) is diagnosed with a rare incurable digestive disease (pseudo-obstruction motility disorder) that requires her to use feeding tubes. In 2011, following a freak accident falling nine metres, Annabel has the near-death episode that instead seemingly cures her of the disease. Annabel speaks of having visited heaven. The mystified doctors who treat her have no explanation for the disappearance of her symptoms.

The devoutly Christian Beam family have no doubts as to its divine source. They always believed in miracles and that miracles had already touched other people in their church. Christy Beam is played by prominent Texas-born actress Jennifer Garner (who recently filed for divorce from actor-director Ben Affleck). Interviewed after the film’s Dallas premiere last month she enthused: “I love the message in the film, and I love the message of hope. I love how inspiring the film is.” She has no doubt Annabel’s story is totally sincere.

One might ask what the Easter promise of eternal life is really about if the portal to a heavenly afterlife can be accessed through such odd accidents. Viewers will have to judge for themselves whether childlike faith and belief in miracles are any help on their own life’s journey.