Shortly before Risen was released in theatres, I overheard a conversation between two elderly women discussing the film...
Woman #1: “Have you heard about this movie Risen?”
Woman #2: “No.”
Woman #1: “Well, it's about Jesus and the resurrection...”
Woman #2: “Oh, okay.”
Woman #1: “But the interesting thing is that it's from the perspective of a Roman soldier who helped crucify Jesus.”
Woman #2: “Oh, wow. How creative! I'm sure that will be very powerful.”
I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure both of those women knew exactly how Risen was going to end. The Roman would discover the truth about Jesus, the gospel would be shared and inspirational music would play over the credits. That's just how faith-based films work. However, while the grand revelations Risen has to offer won't surprise anyone, the film's tone is a refreshing change-of-pace from many of the faith-based movies of recent years. You won't find any hostile culture-war mud-slinging or melodramatic cries of persecution here: just a gentle-but-assured argument for the idea that Jesus was the real deal.
Early in the film, we find Roman tribute Clavius (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love) solemnly overseeing the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth (Cliff Curtis, Fear the Walking Dead). When one terrified Roman soldier has the sort of moment of crisis we're used to seeing in films about Christ (“Surely this man was innocent!”), Clavius gruffly tells the distressed underling to get a grip and do his job (not in those words, exactly, but that's what he means).
A few days later, Clavius gets wind of some bizarre rumors: Jesus' body has gone missing, and some zealots are claiming that he has risen from the dead. Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth, MI-5) is certain that someone has simply stolen the body, and orders Clavius to conduct an official investigation. After all, some people are bound to believe these rumors, and that's only going to cause trouble.
Risen is most interesting during its first half, as it plays out as a sort of Biblical detective movie. Watching Clavius move from one witness to another gathering clues, you almost begin to see traces of an old Humphrey Bogart movie seeping into this sword-and-sandal flick. I half-expected a bit of world-weary narration to appear on the soundtrack: “Everybody kept saying that Jesus was back from the dead, and that they had seen him. I didn't know what to make of it. All I knew was that I had seen a lot of dead bodies, and none of them had ever gotten back up and started walking around.”
Unfortunately, Fiennes is no Bogart... nor is he a Charlton Heston. He's good at depicting moodiness, but every time he turns up in something, I can't help but wish that someone a bit more expressive had been given the role. Still, he delivers his lines with stern credibility. The best performance comes from Peter Firth, who gives us a slightly more unsavory version of Pontius Pilate than we usually get (other films have often depicted the character someone who basically sympathizes with Christ but whose hands are tied by political obligations) and relishes his opportunity to ham it up in a movie filled with people who are delivering more straightforward work. Less successful is Tom Felton (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) as Lucius, Clavius' loyal aide.
Ironically, the moment the resurrected version of Cliff Curtis' Jesus turns up is precisely the moment the film starts to get less interesting. With the mystery definitively resolved, we turn our attention to Clavius' soul-searching. The tale that follows is a pretty standard-issue conversion story, delivered with tender blandness. It doesn't help that the actors play things so timidly: Fiennes offers the same uncertain facial expression over and over, while Curtis (one of those actors who is often called upon to play just about any sort of “ethnic” character – he's a modern Anthony Quinn) gives us a Jesus who seems just a little too God-like. I appreciate the fact that the filmmakers are presenting Christ as the One True Savior, but the best cinematic portraits of Christ also capture his humanity (The Last Temptation of Christ, The Gospel According to St. Matthew).
Kevin Reynolds' direction is workmanlike but effective, boasting a couple of reasonably well-staged low-budget action sequences and some respectable period production design (he's certainly not working with the sort of resources he had on Waterworld, but he works well with what he has). While the pace definitely slackens in the film's back half, the movie never turns genuinely boring, and its climax (in which Jesus' voice is given a cheesy echo effect) is charmingly earnest. It's fine for what it is... and honestly, I wouldn't mind seeing more movies like it. In a time when Christian movies often seem hostile and defensive, it's nice to find one that actually seems devoted to spreading a message of love.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Year: 2016