I am normally leery of movies that are billed as “faith-based” or Christian-themed because, unfortunately, the genre has produced some truly cringeworthy material. I am happy to say that “Risen” does not fall into that category. Yes, it certainly is a religious film, but the production quality is mostly first rate, and it manages a fresh take on the Biblical account of Christ’s Passion that I found to be inventive and entertaining.
The story follows a Roman Tribune, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), as he investigates the mystery of Jesus rising from the tomb after he personally commands the crucifixion. Clavius is a battle-hardened veteran whose only goal in life is to “live one day without seeing death”, as he tells the prefect Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth). The (well-choreographed) fight scenes show that he doesn’t mind breaking a few bones and spearing a few rebels if that’s what it takes to achieve his ambition.
But something goes awry when Pilate tells him to post some guards on Jesus’ tomb to placate the Jewish pharisees. The centurions under his command are missing from their posts the next day, and the tomb is empty. Pilate is furious, because he fears turmoil or even rebellion if the people think that the much-loved Messiah has actually risen from the dead. The emperor is coming, and the last thing the needs is to have to explain that the unrest is due to a dead Nazarene. Suddenly, the careers of both Clavius and Pilate are in jeopardy. What to do?
Well, find the body! When the people see it, Pilate reasons, they will no longer believe in this Messiah nonsense, and the mobs will quiet down. So he orders Clavius to spare no effort in the morbid recovery.
During the investigation, we see Clavius slowly coming to grips with the idea that what he thought he knew about the world was greatly at odds with what happened that day on Calvary. He follows his orders diligently, but gradually he is awakened to the truth as he examines the evidence at the tomb, interrogates witnesses, and, finally, sees the risen Christ (played by Cliff Curtis) himself. He determines that, come what may, he will abandon his duty as a soldier and follow the 12 disciples as they journey to Galilee to once again meet with Christ. I will leave the story of his final epiphany for the viewer to see.
This is a powerful, moving film, worthy of your time and money, but it is not without flaws. The acting is wooden, especially from Fiennes, who displays an austere stoicism which is quite believable in the first half of the movie when he is still in the frame of mind of a military officer, but, unfortunately, he retains most of that stern character even as he witnesses numerous miracles and is supposed to be having a change of heart. Cliff Curtis is, to me, miscast as Jesus, but, since his role is somewhat limited, this isn’t a huge problem for the film. Peter Firth as Pilate is excellent, and the supporting cast is also very convincing.
Then there was the fact that there were really 2 movies on screen. In the first, we have a taut drama in Jerusalem with very good sets and action sequences. In the second, we have second-rate special effects centered around what amounts to a Romanesque road trip that could have actually used a little more meat in the dialogue, especially between Clavius and Jesus. It’s almost like they ran out of money to complete the picture on time and under budget so they had to cut a few corners. Pity, that.
But none of this is to take away from what really is extraordinary entertainment. Taking the Roman’s point of view in the days following Jesus’ rising from the tomb is certainly a bold and original stroke. There is real power in this film. I highly recommend it. 3.5 stars. Check it out.