7 out of 10
Joseph Fiennes as Clavius
Directed by Kevin Reynolds
Dealing with spirituality in modern film is a tricky balancing act. That wasn’t always the case; during the Golden Age of Hollywood (and for many years afterwards) Christianity was such an assumed part of the moviegoing audience, many of the most successful films of a given year would contain elements which would see them pegged as niche.
Gary Cooper’s Oscar-winning turn in Sergeant York may have only played in a handful of theaters and engendered some more headlines about how much larger than expected the audience for explicitly Christian material is. A side effect of that has been the move towards more obviously proselytizing material like Left Behind and God is Not Dead, designed for just the niche. It makes the cross audience appeal of a film like Risen not an anomaly but certainly a surprise.
To make that sort of thing work, you must remain true to your source material (or risk alienating your core audience) but also avoid messaging at the expense of the medium. Risen raises the level of difficulty for itself by choosing the core mythos of one of the world’s major religions; treating it as a just a story is a minefield.
It works as well as it does in large part from the commitment of the actors, led by Fiennes as the war-weary Roman tribune tasked with discovering who stole the body of the dead messiah Yeshua (Curtis) after his crucifixion. Refusing to be either flat and lifeless or over the top and overly self-aware, Fiennes chooses realism (as far as language will allow); his Clavius would not be terribly out of place leading a platoon of Marines stationed in modern-day Afghanistan.
In that sense, the film’s limited budget becomes a strength as opulence is not possible, creating instead a small, grimy and utterly believable version of ancient Judea. Most of the rest of the cast follows his lead, searching for the tangible rather than grasping for the metaphysical (much like their characters), particularly veteran character actor Firth as the wily Pilate, concerned only with keeping the peace and keeping the Emperor off his back.
They’re helped by the filmmaker’s astute decision to graft a disparate genre onto the well-known: in this case the procedural crime story. The Jewish leadership fears Yeshua’s followers have stolen his body to perpetuate the messiah myth and it falls to the unwilling Clavius to prove the man did not rise from the dead and that the existing power structure is not under threat.
Director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) takes this idea and (mostly) runs with it, using the well-known elements not of the Resurrection but of the mystery to give the plot a new spin and a new point of view, imbuing it with drive even for the familiar. The enjoyment of Risen comes often from Clavius finding what the audience knows he must and waiting to see how he will react to it. It is a film less about the birth of Christianity (though it is definitely about that) and more about a normal man coming face-to-face with the miraculous and being awed and terrified and transformed by it.
The distance from the new point of view character provides at least the illusion of fresh eyes, as long as it can be maintained. At its best, Reynolds and co-writer Paul Aiello’s screenplay breathes real humanity into the lives of the people involved, be it a Roman soldier comforting a dying man on a cross or a disciple complaining about the scar he accidentally picked up, ditching grandiosity for something approaching believability.
At its worst, the dialogue frequently attempts levels of Shakespearean word play which it is not capable of and which the younger actors, like assistant soldier Felton (Harry Potter films, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), aren’t as adapt at delivering. All of Risen’s problems stem from sudden and arbitrary bouts of grandiosity, which stand at odds with the more realistic portions of the film.
The pull of the familiar is difficult to escape, especially when searching for thematic ingredients, but if it can be resisted actual truth and depth may be uncovered. Unfortunately, Reynolds and his collaborators can’t or won’t be bothered.
As interesting as the first two-thirds are, once Yeshua reappears he takes over the narrative completely, reducing the once potent Clavius to a spectator in a story which had once been his own. Which would be permissible if Risen had anything new to say about Christianity or its founder, but it doesn’t and as a meditation on a very, very well known mythos, it is drying and indistinguishable from similar films.
As a story of a man coming into contact with the miraculous being transformed by it, it’s very nearly excellent, but only nearly. After spending an entire film trying to escape the weight of the story it’s tied itself to, Risen ultimately gives up and succumbs to it entirely; but if it’s not as good as it could have been, it is certainly far better than it should have been and that counts for something.