When we founded Front Row Central last year, we all agreed on one rule: That none of us would ever have to review movies of the Christian or talking animal varieties unless we absolutely felt like it.* We declared this moratorium because faith-based films always seemed to wind up in the same exact place, preaching to the choir and entertaining no one else. Risen isn’t much different, but it at least has the benefit of giving us a halfway decent historical hook before falling into that same old Christian cinema trap.
The film opens on Good Friday in Jerusalem, as Roman tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is tasked with overseeing the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth (Cliff Curtis, referred to here by Jesus’ Hebrew name, Yeshua). When the body disappears from its tomb the following Sunday, Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) orders Clavius and his young officer Lucius (Tom Felton) to search the city for the stolen body before rumor spreads that Jesus has risen from the grave. The tribune questions as many witnesses as he can find, including Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) and the disciple Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan), but comes no closer to solving this bizarre case.
For the first hour or so, Risen turns out to be a surprisingly straightforward, historically-minded take on the New Testament. The script by Paul Aiello and director Kevin Reynolds (of Waterworld fame) is written from the perspective of the Roman officials presiding over Judea at the time, and their concern over the locals’ dangerous messianic fervor. Many don’t fully understand it, nor do they particularly care; all Pilate and Clavius want is to keep the peace long enough so that they can leave this awful place and retire to a nice farm somewhere upstate with all the other tired old Romans. But when Jesus’ body goes missing, Clavius begins to question his own faith in the Roman god Mars, and his deteriorating mental state becomes one of the running throughlines of the film.
Fiennes plays the tribune as a man losing touch with reality as he ponders events he simply can’t reconcile. He prays to Mars to give him strength and wisdom, but when he begins having strange, symbolic nightmares about Jesus on the cross, he panics and starts using the statue of Mars to pray to the Hebrew God. Clavius is utterly dumbfounded by his experience, and Fiennes is forced to get as much mileage out of his deer-in-headlights stare as he possibly can. He eventually runs out of ways to express his exasperated mental state, and so winds up just blankly staring off into space until the end of the film.
There comes a point, though, where Risen just plain gives up on its biblical detective angle. Eventually the mystery of Jesus’ missing body must be solved, and when it does, Risen has literally no place else to go. Clavius bursts into the room just as the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples, and from that moment onward the film shifts into a standard retelling of the gospels with one extra character in tow. Suddenly the film takes on the tenor of a Hobbit movie as the tribune shepherds the band of bumbling, anonymous disciples to Galilee, all the while evading Pilate’s search parties like they’re a pack of evil goblins. Come to think of it, that probably could have been a whole movie on its own. Still, if you never caught last year’s A.D. miniseries, Risen covers exactly the same territory in about 20 minutes.
To the film’s credit, Risen deals only sparingly in Christian moralizing. Clavius’ crisis of faith and eventual conversion is about as overt a message as you’re going to get here. In fact, Jesus points out that his disbelief is nothing compared to the disbelief of future generations who don’t have the benefit of seeing his miracles with their own eyes. That seems like a bit of a mixed message, though, considering Clavius does the Penn & Teller thing of poking holes in every possible theory to try and find a logical explanation for Jesus’ resurrection. He only seems to accept Jesus because that’s the only way he’s ever going to get a good night’s sleep again. I guess the message is that modern Christians are better than the first Christians because their faith is stronger?
As a piece of historical fiction, this is a fine film; well photographed by Lorenzo Senatore, especially in the final act, as the Sea of Galilee gives us welcome a change of scenery. It would have been nice for Risen to have seen its creative liberties through to the end, but we all know the intended audience wouldn’t take too kindly to that. The film is a little dopey and heavy-handed at times, but never blatantly stoops to preaching to the audience, which is honestly the best that could be hoped for with this kind of production.
*Zootopia: Coming soon to a theater near me.Liked This? Share It!