The acting, casting (with Jesus and his disciples actually looking Mediterranean rather than northern European), and cinematography were extraordinary. The buildings looked authentic (despite some questionable topography at times); the scene with the fleet was extraordinary, though for such a masterpiece the scene was amazingly—pardon the pun—fleeting (the ships’ design looked maybe earlier than first century, but I didn’t get a good look at them). Tribunes would be Pilate’s closest confidantes, and a tribune would be stationed in charge of the Jerusalem cohort. The realism of the early scene enabled me to visualize the advance of a Roman tortoise formation under significant attack in a way I had never imagined. Clearly an enormous amount of research went into the film. Establishing such images in the mind for a sense of and appreciation for the period would alone be worth the price of the movie, and this movie seems to take it to a new level.
Because my work is especially historical I should mention some historical quibbles, however; for example, Tiberius certainly did not visit Judea (he barely was willing to leave the island of Capri); had one changed him to the Syrian governor, however, we would have lost the extraordinary naval scene in Caesarea. The ascension scene should have occurred after the return to Judea, but another trip would have added more complexity (and put Clavius in danger). You don’t return to Judea from Galilee by boat (though perhaps they were crossing to a better port in Galilee for that purpose). Jesus revealed himself only to chosen witnesses (Acts 10:41), but technically he is appearing to the disciples rather than to the Roman soldier when in the movie the latter sees him. Soldiers stationed in Jerusalem were not Roman legionaries per se but auxiliaries, mostly from Syria (though tribunes would be Roman citizens). We don’t know that Mary Magdalene was actually a “woman of the street” and we do know that if she had been, her clientele probably would not have been in Jerusalem. Most of all, Peter would not have felt so comfortable with a Roman—much less a tribune—before Peter gets to Acts 10, when God had to reveal to him that he could associate with a centurion and his household (though the movie gets right Peter’s ultimate position). I do think that most of Jesus’s disciples, like most ancient disciples, were probably in their mid- to late teens.Some arguments from silence are stronger than others; would early Christians be silent about the conversion of a tribune? Indeed, the movie’s basic premise of the Roman military trying to stamp out belief in Jesus’s resurrection in the days after the event is not historically likely; although early Christians did not have reason to emphasize Roman persecution, one might have expected at least a hint of it in Acts, yet it does not appear there.
Nevertheless, it is intriguing, and once one accepts the premise, the depictions, the acting, and the casting were all extraordinary. No one expects the movie to be a historical documentary, but apart from what is necessary for the story line, it provides dramatic insight into the period and events. Although the story line surrounding the central character is fictitious, as just noted, the movie otherwise stays close to the biblical script. Anyone willing to learn from something partly fictitious (as anyone who reads fiction, watches movies or cartoons, or even likes Jesus’s parables) should find it edifying. This is similar to the 1980s miniseries A.D., which used a fictitious frame but communicated well the letter and spirit of much of the Book of Acts (though Clavius being single better fits our knowledge of the Roman military than Valerius’s marriage in that series). Risen, of course, reflects more recent standards for visual scope and coherent action.
Such films help us to explore more deeply the biblical stories with which we have sometimes become too familiar. Personally, these are the kinds of films I like best, because they invite our imaginations into the most important events of history.