Risen, the story of how Jesus' supposed Resurrection from the dead sparked quite a tense situation in Jerusalem.
Stationed in Jerusalem -- in 33 A.D. -- a Roman tribute, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), is in command of a veteran legion tasked with helping keep the peace. Upon arriving back at the garrison having put down a small rebellion in the hills, Clavius is summoned by the Roman governor of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth). While Clavius was away, Pilate ordered the crucifixion of a preacher from Nazareth who was causing problems on all fronts. Now that the preacher is dead, it is feared by many in power that the man's message of resurrection from the dead in 3 days will now incite more disbelief, more fervor, more fight against the Romans. Sure enough, on the morning of the third day, the body is missing from the tomb it had been buried in. What happened? Was the body stolen? Is there something more powerful going on? With Pilate's less than patient mandate to get the job done and do it quickly, Clavius must get to the truth of it all. What really happened to the preacher from Nazareth known as Jesus?
Semi-SPOILERS AHEAD For those that believe Jesus is the Son of God, the thought he rose from the dead is a matter of truth. For others? It's far more incredulous. I don't know where I stand exactly on the subject. I'd like to believe, but I just don't know. 'Risen' -- though it keeps you guessing throughout -- attacks the subject as if Jesus (called by his actual name, Yeshua) did in fact rise from the dead. It's not overtly religious as a film, but your personal beliefs-faith-convictions will no doubt impact what you take away from the film, or if you even like it. I liked it a lot for all the right reasons. End of Semi-SPOILERS.
In the heyday of the EPIC roadshow film hitting theaters -- the 1950's and 1960's -- historical epics were quite common in theaters, specifically biblical epics. How then do you inject some life into a sub-genre that's long since lost its popularity? With an original story like this! Director Kevin Reynolds wrote a screenplay with Paul Aiello that turns one of the most famous stories in history -- Jesus' death and Resurrection -- into a mystery, a police procedural of sorts. How genuinely original and creative is that? If it sounds too straightforward...well, it is a perspective on a familiar story just waiting to be told. Some general background info and knowledge wouldn't hurt here either going in. A lot going on, a lot of names and history so while it's never out-and-out confusing, it could be a lot to juggle if you're unfamiliar with the story and its players.
One of the archetypal characters in biblical epics were non-believers who wanted to believe -- sometimes against their better judgment -- who are then brought into the growing Christian faith. In steps Joseph Fiennes as Clavius, a longtime Roman soldier who's grown weary of the life full of death, blood and destruction. When instructed to find out what happened to Jesus, he doggedly pursues the clues of a case that just seems too impossible to be even remotely true. A man couldn't really rise from the dead now, could he? The transformation Clavius goes through is believable and very effective because Fiennes does such a fine job with the lead performance. An underrated actor all around, he's one of the best things going here in 'Risen.' We see a man tortured inside by his own doubt, comparing everything he knows and believes to all those things that you have to take on faith (no matter how difficult). A layered performance, a fascinating character and our point person in solving one of history's great stories and mysteries.
This isn't an all-star cast full of thousands. There's some recognizable names and faces with an ensemble cast that fills in around Fiennes as necessary. Firth is excellent as Pilate, given some depth here and not just as a cardboard cutout, the easy villain. Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy himself) plays Lucius, Clavius' young aide, inexperienced but wanting to learn. Who else to look for? A lot of familiar names if you're familiar with the story, including Mary Magadelene (Maria Botto), Joseph of Arimathea (Antonio Gil) , and Jesus' disciples, most notably Simon Peter (Stewart Scudamore) and Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan).
Filmed on-location in Spain, 'Risen' has that sun-drenched, sandy, dusty look of so many past epics from The Greatest Story Ever Told to King of Kings, Ben-Hur to Gladiator and so many others. In that sense, Reynolds' film feels like a bit of a throwback to biblical epics of old, albeit with such a cool twist leading the story. How do you prove a man did or didn't die? Finding his body and quickly before it rots to the point it can no longer be identified. In 33 A.D. in the heat of the desert...that's not long. It's never slow-moving, always moving forward, always working toward something bigger in a finished product that runs 107 minutes. There are times I thought it dragged some in the second half when things should have been picking up momentum, but the ending itself -- and some twists along the way in getting there -- certainly make up for it.
In an odd way of looking at 'Risen' as a police procedural of sorts, the story works as it drops hints and clues where it's going. The story we follows begins with us being thrown right into the tail end of Jesus' crucifixion, and away we go from there. There are references to the bloodied crown of thorns, the shroud of Turin, several Bible passages about the days and weeks following the death and Resurrection -- specifically the Upper room -- which we just don't know much about other than some vague(ish) references. The best thing going here (along with Mr. Fiennes) is a moving performance by Cliff Curtis as Jesus, a quiet, dignified performance that just works so well. I don't want to give too much away, but it's an excellent appearance. The second half does take some surprising twists that lean toward the more religious nature so be forewarned going in.
But taking it all in, I loved it. A bit of a throwback to days of old with Hollywood historical epics mixed in with some new elements of a biblical detective story. Fiennes is excellent, but the whole cast is very good. It's not making much money in theaters, but the reviews are fair to middling (with some that actually liked it) so take advantage during the Lenten season and go see this one. And that's from a heathen like me!
Risen (2016): ***/****