2016, PG-13, 107 min. Directed by Kevin Reynolds. Starring Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis, María Botto, Luis Callejo, Stephen Hagan, Joe Manjón.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 26, 2016
Faith-based movies are on the upswing, and Risen makes a timely arrival in theatres for the season of Lent. This biblical-epic wannabe will entertain its intended Christian demographic with the story of the post-crucified Christ’s resurrection and the 12 apostles tasked with spreading the gospel far and wide. Weirdly, I suspect there may be a handful of secular moviegoers and unlucky horror film fans who unwittingly purchase tickets based solely on the movie’s title, which if one is going in blind makes the film sound more like Adam Green’s umpteenth Hatchet sequel (“Some legends never die”) or a Friday the 13th offshoot (“You may only see it once, but that will be enough”). And, of course, the story of Jesus Christ: Re-Animator is, frankly about a walking dead man-cum-heaven-sent spirit, so the parallels are there for those who choose to savor them. The real question is this: Is the lavishly produced Risen any good as a wide-audience movie? Or is it really just for the chosen few?
Surprisingly, it’s distinctly one of the better faith-based films in some time to wander down the road to Galilee. Joseph Fiennes, as Clavius, is the Roman military tribune tasked by Pontius Pilate (Firth) with unearthing the truth regarding the mysteriously missing corpse of the Jewish king, and thereby quash the spreading rumors of the messiah that threaten to undermine the entirety of the Roman Empire. Jesus, played by Cliff Curtis with a knowing, roguish smile and perfect teeth – divine resurrection does that to you apparently – is here referred to by his Hebrew name Yeshua. But co-writers Reynolds (Waterworld) and Paul Aiello script a film that’s less about the son of God than it is about Clavius, who was present at Yeshua’s death upon the cross.
Initially something of a detective film, circa AD33, Clavius and his legionaries promptly ransack every available Jewish grave, searching for a cadaver with the telltale wounds. They come up short, but Clavius happens into a secret meeting of the disciples with a very much alive-seeming Yeshua among them. Unable to reconcile what he’s seen, Clavius goes rogue and follows the 12 into the desert, where he witnesses even more soul-shaking events: abundant fishing, a leper cured, and here-one-moment-gone-the-next Yeshua. Meanwhile, Pilate has dispatched a mounted cohort of legionaries to pursue the AWOL Clavius.
The disciples at first come off as a grinning bunch of loons, which is totally apropos given the circumstances. Stephen Hagan’s Bartholomew, in particular, seems to have wandered in from Monty Python’s Life of Brian; he’s one of the most entertaining characters in the film. But as Clavius’ agnosticism is tested time and again, he gradually arcs from stoic soldier to potential believer. Not exactly “born again,” but still. Fiennes renders him with believable nuance as the film progresses to its inevitable conclusion. The many digital effects, ranging from patently fake flames to Yeshua’s final exit into what appears to be either a nuclear blast or possibly the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, are very much less than heavenly.
And yet, as far as this sort of movie goes, you could do a lot worse. Secular me, I must confess to enjoying the giddily bombastic, Old Testament wackadoodle of Ridley Scott’s recent Exodus: Gods and Kings, the legitimate classic Spartacus, and even good old Charlton Heston and Vincent Price in Cecil B. DeMille’s cornball-eerie The Ten Commandments. Risen wisely attempts no such fustian bluster, but instead focuses on Fiennes’ tired, homesick, and cynical tribune dragged into an encounter with the impossible. Given the subject matter, that’s pretty miraculous in and of itself.