There is a scene in the Coen Brothers’ latest film “Hail, Caesar!” where a movie exec has a meeting with four clergymen of different denominations to see if any of them takes issue with how Christ is portrayed in one of their upcoming films. It’s one of the funnier scenes in the movie; it’s also why most Biblical retellings reek of focus groups and compromise, because the last thing a studio wants is to be perceived as insensitive when it comes to religion. “Risen” manages to avoid those trappings by doing the simplest thing: it focuses on one specific event – the Resurrection, along with the subsequent two weeks or so – and in the process sets a ceiling on the audience’s expectations. This sounds like damning with faint praise, but it turns out to be a very shrewd move.
Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is an ambitious, ruthless commander in the Roman army battalion stationed in the Judean Desert. He spends most of his days battling resistance fighters, while overseeing the occasional crucifixion. One day, Clavius is giving the final orders that will put three recently crucified men out of their misery, but one of them, whom the onlookers refer to as the King of Nazarene, does not scream in pain or beg for mercy. Clavius’ men kill him and, at the suggestion of a local Hebrew leader, lock him in a tomb, with Romans standing guard. The guards are there to prevent the locals from moving the body and later claiming that it was the work of God, as predicted in the prophecy.
The locals don’t move the body; they never had the opportunity. The king (Cliff Curtis), referred to as Yeshua by his people, is gone from the tomb, something that greatly displeases Clavius’ superior Pilate (Peter Firth), who does not want the religious fervor already sweeping the area to boil over. Clavius is tasked with solving the mystery of the missing king, but he has decidedly mixed feelings about why he’s doing it. He knew something wasn’t right about how Yeshua handled his punishment, and to hear those devoted to the king sing his praises, Clavius begins to second-guess everything he stands for. The second-guessing would only get stranger from there.
Director Kevin Reynolds doesn’t work much these days (still paying for “Waterworld,” it seems), and the down time shows, as there are times where he tries a bit too hard to get the audience’s attention. The film’s opening shot shows Clavius walking across the desert, staring straight at the screen in a close-up, and then looking to his right…to see the small house he just walked past, now 30 yards behind him. It was hidden from the audience’s view until then, but there is no way he missed it, which makes the whole thing look silly. Reynolds fares much better when he stays out of his own way.
Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” series) co-stars as Lucius, an equally ambitious rat bastard in training assigned to be Clavius’ apprentice. Lucius, of course, is the name of Draco’s father in the “Potter” series, and just like the “Potter” films, Felton is once again an impotent ball of rage. Is he capable of doing anything else?
The film’s beginning and end are its weakest links. The sequence after that awkward first shot tries a bit too hard to be a PG-13 “300” thanks to a battle scene where the Romans’ opponents are woefully outgunned, and ultimately slaughtered. The ending, particularly Pilate’s last scene, smacks of a late reshoot, as do the bookends on both sides of those scenes. The moments in between, however, are disarmingly pure. Yeshua/Jesus is often treated as an alien in these types of films. Curtis, wisely, makes Yeshua as human as possible, and it makes a huge difference. On a related note, it’s nice to see the son of God, born in the Middle East, actually look like someone from the Middle East. (Curtis is of Maori descent, born in New Zealand.) Let that be a lesson to every other film studio: stop casting white people to play Jesus/Yeshua.
“Risen” gets a lot of things right that studios have inexplicably gotten wrong for decades, but because of its limited scope in terms of storytelling, it lacks the emotional heft to be considered a game-changer. It’s pleasant, and hopeful, but a tad slight.
(3 / 5)
This originally ran February 18, 2016 on Bullz-Eye.com.