A film review by Craig J. Koban June 4, 2016

RISEN jjj

2016, PG-13, 107 mins.

 

Joseph Fiennes as Clavius  /  Tom Felton as Lucius  /  Peter Firth as Pontius Pilate  /  Cliff Curtis as Yeshua  /  María Botto as Mary Magdalene  /  Mark Killeen as Antonius  /  Mish Boyko as John  /  Selva Rasalingam as James  /  Stewart Scudamore as Peter

Directed by Kevin Reynolds  /  Written by Reynolds and Paul Aiello

I’m usually not very responsive to faith based films, mostly because of their beyond obvious efforts to pander towards their core audience while alienating everyone else in the process.  

RISEN is a decidedly and refreshingly different type of faith based film altogether, which is ultimately what makes it so uniquely engaging to sit through.  Like countless other Biblically themed films that came before it, this one takes a very novel approach in telling the Greatest Story Ever Told in the sense that it chronicles Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection from the perspective…of an initially skeptical, non-believing Roman soldier.  In many instances, RISEN is more of an enticing mystery thriller and an ancient police procedural than a one-note religious melodrama, but it still holds true to the tenants of scripture, albeit while using some dramatic license.   

The Roman soldier in question is Clavius, played by a thanklessly decent Joseph Fiennes in a performance that’s much more richly layered than this genre usually allows for.  The film opens with a rather small scale, but nevertheless terrifically realized battle sequence featuring Clavius and his army crushing a zealot revolution.  Returning home bloodied, bruised, and rightfully tired, all Clavius wants is some downtime, but Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) instructs him to oversee the last few hours of the crucifixion of a rumored Jewish messiah, Yeshua (Hebrew word for Jesus, played by Cliff Curtis).  Begrudgingly, Clavius is forced to take a young partner with him in Lucius (Tom Felton), and upon their initial departure to the crucifixion site things seem…off to Clavius, especially when an earthquake hits on their way to Golgotha.  Clavius doesn’t think much of it afterwards, though, and proceeds to see that Yeshua meets his end. 

 

 

When Clavius arrives it is he that orders the final stabbing of Yeshua as a final deathblow.  After his apparent death, Yeshua is taken to a tomb that is to be officially sealed by Clavius at Pilate’s orders.  Things go south for Pilate and Clavius when Yeshua’s body goes…missing…without any reasonable and logical explanation.  Pilate demands that Clavius launch an investigation into Yeshua’s disappearance in hopes of quelling any type of uprising from his followers.  This takes Clavius on a detective-like journey where he looks for potential clues and tries to locate Yeshua’s disciples to get even more answers.  Much to his amazement, Clavius does indeed get some closure, but not the kind he was expecting: he discovers that Yeshua is indeed alive and has been resurrected from the dead.  For all intents and purposes, he looks normal and healthy, despite his barbaric treatment at the hands of the Romans.  Realizing the magnitude of his findings, Clavius calls off his search – without informing Lucius and his crew of the fact that Yeshua is alive – and then tries to deal with the more nagging issues of his past atheism. 

Very film films that I can recall have ever told a story of the miracle of Christ through a non-believer’s eyes.  RISEN, to its credit, is not another in an inordinately long list of movies that perfunctorily deal with the death and resurrection of Christ.  The film certainly doesn’t deviate from scripture in any tangible way, but it’s benefited from the novel prerogative it takes in exploring it.  As a result, RISEN feels a lot more grounded and humanized than most of Biblical films, and co-writer/director Kevin Reynolds (yes, the same one that directed ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES and WATERWORLD) understands that the key to this film’s success lies in how it hones its focus on the perception of a relatable “outsider” to Christ’s teachings.  For the most part, RISEN deserves props for making honest efforts to shake up overused faith-based genre conventions here and tell a widely known story from an inventive vantage point. 

The film also works as an effective mystery, even though seemingly everyone on the planet that has picked up a Bible will know the story’s outcome before even stepping foot in the cinema.  Clavius uses fairly sound deductive reasoning in his overall plan of attack in investigating Yeshua’s disappearance: he questions everyone that was directly and indirectly related to Yeshua, he explores all forms of evidence that is unearthed, and he tries, as only he can, to make some semblance of sense of it all.  Again, we all know where Clavius’ journey will unavoidably take him, but RISEN still somehow works for the manner it takes viewers on a journey of discovery with this inquisitive character.  It’s also compelling how the film – at least during its first half – doesn’t really show Yeshua’s miracles, but rather relays eyewitness accounts of them that are provided to Clavius, which in turn leads to his evolution away from a staunch disbeliever when irrefutable evidence of Yeshua’s resurrection surface. 

Clavius himself is very fascinating character in RISEN.  Most other films about the crucifixion of Christ don’t afford Roman characters many conflicted layers of depth.  The film almost becomes more of an examination of a soldier that must force himself to come to grips with the shocking spiritual truths that he crosses paths with during his search for the missing Yeshua, which culminates with him realizing that, yes, Yeshua is far more than a flesh and blood man.  Joseph Fiennes is a tremendously strong fit for this character and the underlining material, as he’s very good at playing internalized characters that eventually let their subjugated feelings out when dealing with a crisis of faith…or lack or faith in Clavius’ case.  He begins the film as a man of fairly cynical and cold detachment that his job title requires, but then later segues into a confused being of deep uncertainty, doubt, and ultimately acceptance of the miraculous turn of events that unfolds before his very eyes.   RISEN is fairly strong as an intimate character driven film, but one other thing that it also does well with casting is its insistence to not cast another obligatorily blonde and blue eyed actor to portray Jesus.  I really appreciated the choice of Cliff Curtis for the role, seeing as, for once, we have a performer that seems to be physically and ethnically right for Jesus (considering his time period and geographical setting) in ways that countless other Biblical films don't understand.  Granted, RISEN still adheres to Hollywood formulas by having British actors portray the Romans, so there's that. 

RISEN won’t convert atheists to Christianity.  That much is clear.  The least intriguing elements of the film occurs during its latter sections, during which time Clavius has written off his status as a Roman soldier and has joined with Yeshua’s flock, witnessing his miracles that are presented by Reynolds with such low key, B-grade nonchalance that they feel more like the product of a bargain basement budget than that of something powerfully moving.  Still, RISEN gets a lot right: Its attention to historical detail is decent, especially in the film’s opening sections showing Clavius and his warriors using shrewd tactics to fend off hostile Hebrew insurgents.  The film also doesn’t soft-pedal the material, but thankfully doesn’t go to the pornographic levels of violent carnage that were on nauseating display in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.   To be fair, RISEN is transparently a piece of Christian faith propaganda, but it’s done with surprising and respectful tact, some solid and committed performances, and a distinct handling of its narrative that kept me engaged throughout, which is something that many other similar – and less enlightened - genre films like it have failed to do over the years

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