Film review: Risen

posted at 8:01 am on February 22, 2016 by Ed Morrissey

Some mild spoilers.

Roman tribune Clavius returns from putting down another Judean partisan militia to Jerusalem, where Pontius Pilate assigns him a pressing task — to ensure the death of a Nazarene ascetic that had just been crucified that morning. The next morning, Pilate has Clavius seal the tomb of the crucified man, only to discover the next day that the tomb has been opened and the body missing. Pilate, angry over the failure of Clavius, tasks his tribune with one last mission to redeem his service to the Roman empire — find the body of Y’shua and track down his disciples before they can claim him as Messiah.

When the ad for Risen aired during the Super Bowl, I tweeted out that I found the approach intriguing. When asked why, I replied that this trailer hinted at an interesting approach — perhaps a Law and Order: Judea of sorts — and a recognizable cast, which independent Bible-based films sometimes lack, and often don’t really need. Risen appeared to have serious funding as well as an oblique approach that harkens back to a past era of Biblical films like The Robe, Ben-Hur, or Barabbas.

Risen more than pays off in those categories. Kevin Reynolds, who co-wrote and directed the film, gives us a change of pace from more recent films of this genre, thanks to the focus on Clavius (Joseph Fiennes). Rather than offer an earnest and straightforward retelling of the Gospel as in Son of God, or fantastical Biblical action films such as Noah or Exodus: Gods and Kings, we get a view of the story from the skeptic’s perspective. The war-weary Clavius, who only wants “a day without death” but who has the cynicism of a man who’s seen too much of it, becomes the outsider with whom the audience can identify.

First, though, Clavius establishes himself as a loyal Roman, but one who wants to know the truth. His detective skills lead him to begin approaching it, but an encounter with Y’shua leaves him shaken — and taking another path to see the truth. It is on that path that Clavius becomes any of us who wonder what it would have been like for us to be on the path of the disciples, and that we become Clavius in his struggle to believe what has been made clear.

The film hooks the audience at first with its intrigue and action, but in the second half it succeeds with quieter character development. The tension gets heightened along the way with some danger to the disciples, but the film really hinges on Clavius’ struggle to embrace Christ and the disciples as he follows out the last chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. This necessarily makes Risen slow its pace in the second half and take a more philosophical tone that might lose some viewers. However, this parallels the distinction between life in the present world and the promise of eternal love and brotherhood in Christianity so well that it can hardly be credited as a coincidence.

The cast, while mostly unknowns, does has some familiar faces. First, Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, The Great Raid) delivers a moving and subtle performance as Clavius; he is the center of the film, thanks to that oblique approach to the Gospel taken by Risen. Peter Firth (Hunt for Red October, Amistad) plays a dissipated Pilate whose ambitions have just started to be outstripped by his despair. Tom Felton leaves his signature role as Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy behind with a good performance as Lucius, a junior officer just starting to develop his ambitions as Clavius’ adjutant. Finally, Cliff Curtis departs from tough-guy roles in Training Day and Colombiana to play Jesus, and offering a different and engaging approach to the role — perhaps easier to do because of the focus on Clavius. Of the rest of the cast, Maria Botto as Mary Magdalene and Stewart Scudamore as Peter stand out most.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Risen is a very good film. It has excellent production values, talent on both sides of the camera, and makes the most of a somewhat unconventional approach (at least these days) to Biblical filmmaking. And best of all, it works. On the Hot Air scale, Risen gets a five, especially for Christians:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

What about those who have little interest in Christianity or Biblical filmmaking? It’s a good film nonetheless, but the second half of the film might lose those viewers — or perhaps the excellent performances of Fiennes, Curtis, and Scudamore might keep them in their seats. They certainly deserve to be seen all the way through.

Risen is rated PG-13 for “Biblical violence” and “disturbing images.” Almost all of those take place in the first 5 minutes of the film, and are really no worse than an average action film. I’d have no issues watching this with my 13-year-old granddaughter, but I wouldn’t take her seven-year-old sister to it.

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