Film Review: Risen

Release Date: February 19, 2016

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Risen follows the story of Roman Tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), who is charged with finding out what happened to the body of Jesus (Cliff Curtis), referred to here by His Hebrew name of Yeshua. He is ordered to do so by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), and is accompanied by newly transferred Lucius (Tom Felton of Draco Malfoy fame). Of course, as a film based on one of Christianity’s central moments, Risen was met with some apprehension. Would it be blasphemous, or perhaps a piece of Christian propaganda?

The film actually opens with a little battle between Roman soldiers under Clavius and Jewish rebels led by none other than Barabbas, who, judging by the film’s chronology, seems to be making trouble pretty quickly after his pardon by Pontius Pilate. Clavius returns to Jerusalem to oversee the end of Jesus’ crucifixion. Once Jesus’ body disappears there is talk of conspiracy and a potential Jewish uprising. Clavius leads his men in an investigation and I have to say that while this lasts the film is highly engaging. It weaves in bits of the Bible and history expertly and it’s a treat seeing familiar figures from the Bible through the eyes of pagan Romans. Pontius Pilate’s annoyance with the local Jewish rulers provides some of the film’s few laughs.

Unfortunately, and here may be spoilers, this plot thread gets resolved about halfway through the film, which turns into a straightforward adaptation of the end of the Gospels, just with a Roman soldier now randomly sitting in the background to observe. Even then the way the story is presented is a little underwhelming and a little rushed. Clavius is supposed to have undergone a great inner change, but this doesn’t get well developed since he spends much of his screentime simply looking at the disciples and not really interacting.

Of course, Jesus himself is in the film, thankfully portrayed by a non-white this time, though still not a Jew. Cliff Curtis isn’t a bad actor, and the problems with his performance stem more from the script, which asks him to look around smiling at everyone. The filmmakers also play it very safe with his dialogue. Adding words to Jesus’ mouth will always be a daunting task, since there’s great potential to offend Christians or accidentally insert some heresy. Aside from a few words directed at Clavius, all he says is direct quotes from the Bible, and in between them he has nothing to do but smile at his disciples.

Risen is a movie that starts off great, but flounders in its last act. I think there are three possible, better directions it could have taken. One would have been to extend the investigation and end with a scene between Clavius and Jesus, instead of having him observe the entire last couple chapters of the various Gospels. Another would have had him never find Jesus, dead or alive, but have him affected by what he hears. A third alternative, which would have perhaps required a bigger budget, would show how he has become a different man, displayed in further interactions with various Romans and Jews.

Risen is good if you want to pass a couple hours and should interest religious viewers. It could have been much better. I would much more recommend the 1953 film The Robe, in which one of the Roman officers in charge of the crucifixion is changed by his experiences and tries to balance his newfound Christianity with his devotion to Rome. Unlike other epics of that period it’s only a little over two hours long.

Rating: 6/10

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