If nothing else, “Risen” is not like a lot of other Biblical movies. To be sure, it has the look of most Biblical movies; the scenery is covered in rocks and sand and the faces are all expectedly soot-y. But a lot of it plays like a detective movie, which is an unusual approach. For every memorable scene of preaching or a miracle, there is an equally impressive scene of an investigation or interrogation. There’s not much mystery as to where the movie is heading, but we’re not quite sure how it’s going to get there.
Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman enforcer who works for Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth). Pilate has Clavius oversee the crucifixion of a man claiming to be king of the Jews. This man has gone by several names throughout history: Jesus, Yahweh, Elijah, but this movie calls him Yeshua (Cliff Curtis, and yes, I think it’s weird to have this character portrayed by a guy named Cliff). Rumor has it that Yeshua’s followers believe that their Messiah will rise from the dead after three days, so Pilate has Clavius secure the tomb so the followers can’t break in and steal the body, which would allow them to say that He broke out on His own. But then, and this is one of the predictable parts, the body does indeed go missing.
Clavius, already in hot water for letting the body go missing in the first place, is tasked with retrieving it and preferably arresting the followers in the process. He and his men, including rookie Lucius (Tom Felton), dive into the seedy underbelly of Jerusalem looking for answers, and work to separate fact from rumor. What they find is that the prime suspects are goodhearted goofballs and that their own men have the sketchy moral characters. Clavius attempts to both solve the problem and make the problem go away, but he’s never satisfied, as if there’s something missing from his life – maybe faith. And then in the blink of an eye the problem is solved, but a greater one emerges.
From the discovery on is where the film is at its weakest. Clavius pretty much spends the rest of the time in a stupefied daze, his world suddenly and irreversibly turned upside down. Other than that, most of the third act is just Yeshua being Yeshua. Do you like seeing Him be wise and comforting? Healing a leper? Providing His followers with fish? Let’s hope so, because it accounts for an awful lot of screen time.
Not that I want to complain too much about this movie, but I need to address the battle scene that opens the film. It is very obvious that this scene is supposed to be brutal, but it can’t do anything that would jeopardize its PG-13 rating. So there are a lot of unpleasant implications and squishy sound effects, but the violence is laughably bloodless. It’s a confused tone that tells us that the film can’t really decide whether or not it feels the need to use shocking violence to tell its story. The crucifixion scene comes soon after, and it treats violence similarly, but at least we’re expecting it.
“Risen” is actually a pretty decent movie when it’s not doing action. The best scenes are the conversations Clavius has with Pilate, suspects, followers, and Yeshua. Clavius himself isn’t particularly interesting, but his is an interesting vantage point, facing in actuality what most people just read about in stories. The film may not be the epic masterpiece that some may demand of a film with this subject matter, but I think it’s acceptably watchable.
“Risen” is rated PG-13 for Biblical violence including violent images. Its running time is 107 minutes.
Robert Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. He has been a published movie reviewer since 2006.
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