Film Review: Risen

Handsome and sober, 'Risen' wraps the biblical story of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection in what's essentially a police procedural. It's an interesting take but might be a difficult sell to faith-based audiences.
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Roman tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is posted to a dusty, stifling-hot Judea–not the kind of place where an ambitious soldier is likely to find much opportunity to distinguish himself and move up the military ladder (with an eye to getting closer to civilization). His newest assignment–tracking down the grave robbers who made off with the corpse of a crucified zealot, Yeshua (Clifton Curtis), and recovering the body–strikes him as both petty and disgusting, but Prefect Pilate (Peter Firth) wants the matter resolved before Emperor Tiberius arrives for a state visit. It wouldn’t do much for Pilate's prospects to appear incapable of controlling a population of poor fisherman and goatherds. Saddled with a truculent assistant (Tom Felton), Clavius does as he's told, eventually failing at his mission (for reasons that hardly need explaining), but finding his soul.

To his credit, Risen writer-director Kevin Reynolds (Rapa Nui) conjures a thoroughly believable vision of the past, one in which religion and politics are inextricably entwined and most people are just trying to get through the day without starving or getting on the wrong side of whoever it is they answer to. His depiction of the disciples is engaging, ranging from the slightly nutty-seeming Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan) to a rough-hewn Peter (Stewart Scudamore), whose temper is in line with his tribulations, and while Curtis doesn't get a lot of screen time–he is, by the nature of the story, more often absent than present–he manages the not-easy feat of playing a man with just a hint of gentle piety. He also looks very much like recent reconstructions of the face of historical Jesus, rather than the pale, blue-eyed savior of most popular depictions. And Clavius' gradual conversion is convincing–though generally overshadowed by his brother Ralph, Fiennes has a strong but understated presence that works well for a character who listens more than he speaks.

All that said, Risen never rises, if you will, above the material. There was a time when biblical epics, with their blend of action and uplift, were reliable mass-market box office. But in today's fragmented market, they're a harder sell, particularly without marquee stars or sweeping special effects. And the faith-based viewers who are this movie's natural audience may not appreciate either its occasional cheekiness or the fact that it isn't actually about Jesus, though its message that even a skeptic can find religion by accepting Jesus as his/her personal savior should be palatable.

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