Cinematic Releases: Tortured for Christ (2018) - Reviewed

Andrew reviews the new release, Tortured for Christ. 

Romanian Christian minister Richard Wurmbrand served fourteen years of imprisonment including solitary confinement and was subjected to various tortures including having his feet whipped, hung upside down and forced to stand for hours inside a box outfitted with nails, for publicly speaking out against Communism and preaching Christianity in secret.  After he and his wife Sabina were ransomed out, they emigrated to America where they formed the interdenominational human rights group Voice of the Martyrs with the aim of giving care to persecuted Christians in Communist countries all over the world.  After writing several texts on Christianity and rebuking Marxism and Communism, he published his most famous text in 1967, Tortured for Christ, chronicling his ordeal suffered within the Romanian underground Jilava prison.

Enter 2018 with the newfound movement of fundamentalist Christian film productions becoming a viable theatrical enterprise and in some cases taking in more money than most Hollywood blockbusters.  Marking the book’s fiftieth anniversary and co-produced by the late Pastor’s Voice of the Martyrs organization, frequent Christian short filmmaker John Grooters of The Frontier Boys and The Noah Interview has brought Wurmbrand’s experience to the big screen.  Using the same title and filmed entirely in Romania including in the same Jilava prison undoctored by modern day technologies save for some 1940s period recreations on the backlots of Romania as well as spoken largely in Romanian and Russian with some English voiceover narration, Tortured for Christ attempts to convey Wurmbrand’s ordeal and express his determination to stand proudly against the persecution of Christian martyrs like himself.

Part docudrama with some historical footage and photographs included as well as an evangelical Christian sermon including being bookended by Christian concert numbers replete with karaoke subtitled lyrics, Tortured for Christ is a well photographed and reasonably well acted endeavor thanks largely to Romanian actor Emil Mandanac (The Crucifixion).  Good intentions aside, the question becomes whether or not this Christian film production works as a movie as many like it unfortunately have proven beneficial only to a select few.  Though only seventy-seven minutes in length, I got the feeling watching Tortured for Christ that despite the authenticity, the running time was padded out.  I was waiting for the picture to start as the opening credits and concert number unfolded and waited even longer for it to end when we got yet another one with the film’s title displayed on a large projection screen behind the band onstage.  The journey between works fine but the song and dance numbers bookending the film threaten to sink it entirely. 

Having gone through my own share of fundamentalist Christian films, usually out of cynicism but sometimes encountering pleasant surprises like the infinitely better and far more complex Risen which had a Hollywood filmmaker behind it, Tortured for Christ gets most of the beats right but at the same time I was curiously disengaged from the endurance tests presented onscreen.  We’re never really allowed to discover Wurmbrand as a character despite Mandanac’s performance and the constant voiceover narration recalling the events in addition to sermonizing tend to take away from allowing the audience to truly experience Wurmbrand’s ordeal.  It also doesn’t help that Martin Scorsese recently gave moviegoers THE quintessential Tortured for Christ movie with the 2016 masterpiece Silence.  That film got deeper to the heart of spiritual and physical conflict in the face of human suffering than this well-intentioned but ultimately, I’m sorry to say, mediocre Christian film production ever will.


- Andrew Kotwicki