As a Christian, I’ve always found faith based films drab and tedious affairs. Having a noble message is one thing. Good and interesting storytelling is another. Christian films definitely sport the former but want the latter. Kevin Reynolds’ Risen presents the most interesting premise of a faith-based I’ve seen where we have here a story about a Roman soldier investigating the resurrection of Christ following execution by way of crucifixion.
Joseph Fiennes plays this Roman soldier, Clavius, and he is tasked with investigating the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the impossible-to-open tomb. I won’t dwell on the actual crucifixion story because we all know it. If you don’t, quickly download a bible app and scroll to the gospels. Basically the Romans and the Pharisees do not want the disappearance of Jesus to validate his teachings and fuel an uprising. Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) wants Clavius to handle this situation quick. They understandably do not consider the possibility of Jesus actually rising from the dead.
The obvious novelty for this faith based film is the fact it resides in the perspective of an unbeliever acting within the realms of logic. The Romans are sure the body has been taken by some Jesus fanatics but they are wary of the miraculous narrative being touted. People like myself know the truth but the intrigue here is in seeing what lies at the end of Clavius’ arch. In the short term the Romans' pressing problem is the emperors impending visit and the prospect of having him welcomed by Jesus fanatics armed with more conviction for their insurgent activities which we see Clavius and his men deal with early on in scenes more in tune with 300 than a “Jesus” film.
We get to see Clavius morph from a counter insurgent to a detective as he questions people who knew Jesus in hopes of figuring out what happened to the missing body. Jesus’ disciples are the prime suspects here especially given they all went into hiding around the time their leader was put on trial. Clavius eventually has something resembling a road to Damascus moment when he leads platoon of Roman soldiers into Jerusalem following some intel on the whereabouts of the disciples. Our director handles the sequences that see the Romans bursting through doors Staci style with intelligent subtlety considering it culminates in Clavius bursting into a room to the sight of Jesus in the flesh.
It takes a while to register then it just hits you. Jesus really is alive. We spend so much time aligned with Clavius’ perspective that the obvious someway somehow becomes stupefying. Jesus here is played by Cliff Curtis (in the most ethnically accurate representation of Jesus I’ve seen) who isn’t doing much here as his character simply relies on our idea of Jesus and the seeds of intrigue he plants in Clavius who deserts the Romans and tails Jesus' disciples to Galilee as deals with a crisis of altered reality.
Fiennes' performance consisting of subtle reactions from cynicism to astonishment sells this tangent in his arch and it is aided by the restraint Reynolds employs and the unconventional route the script takes to get there. The film continues to view the miracle of Christ’s resurrection through the eyes of Clavius and he oddly exists in the periphery of the film till quite tellingly Jesus reaches out to him through the remaining bits of skepticism and calms the existential crisis within him.
Risen doesn’t rub shoulders with The Last Temptation of Christ thematically or The Passion of the Christ on a cinematic spectrum but it does put in some solid work. It sports a strong functional cast that gives life to the setting and I quite liked the handling of the iconic crucifixion, overseen by Clavius, that is given not gory but quite visceral treatment with interesting attention given process. This film could have however been trimmed by a good 15 to 20 minutes and it does become quite tedious and unfocused in stretches that call out to sleep.
The final act doesn’t appear to have a resolution in sight because Clavius ceases to be an effective audience surrogate and the film sheds its originality in favour of hovering passively over Jesus’s last days on earth. The selling point of Risen remains the novelty of inviting viewers to look at the resurrection story from the relatable standpoint of unbelief and reason. It mixes the a good narrative with the message of salvation, something that has been hard to pull off on screen and attains the status of one of the few faith based films you can recommend on the basis of pure intrigue.