I have a friend who writes about movies (shocking, I know) and also happens to be a devout Christian. Last summer, when War Room, a religious drama, surprised pundits and was a box office hit despite widespread negative reviews, someone at his church, knowing his affinity for cinema, suggested that maybe he might want to review it, thinking he would provide a Christian perspective. As it turned out, his review was one of the most savage I read, and the general gist of it was, “Just because I’m Christian doesn’t mean I like shitty movies or that I’ll give one a pass.” He lamented the fact that most faith-based movies are cheap, slapdash, poorly acted, heavy-handed, and simply not very good. The latest entry into this arena, Risen, while not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, is a step in the right direction.
Produced by Affirm Films, the faith-based arm of Sony, with a larger than usual budget and more recognizable talent in front of and behind the camera, Risen is a retelling of the story of Christ. There’s an obvious religious message, but the film is actually more concerned with weaving a compelling story than ham-fistedly hammering home a beleaguered point.
Roman Centurion Clavius (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love) is brave and driven, steadfastly serving Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth). After the body of Yeshua (Cliff Curtis, Fear the Walking Dead), better known to most of us as Jesus of Nazareth, disappears from his tomb, Clavius is tasked with finding the body and quashing the rumors that the Messiah has risen from the dead. Accompanied by his sidekick Lucius (Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter), what Clavius discovers shakes him to his very core.
This is not a particularly surprising narrative -- the tale is, after all, a rather well known one – but thanks the decision to tell it from the point of view of a character who essentially fits into the role of a skeptical cop, Risen can feel marginally fresh. At least they try to take a different approach. When it works best, it is more or less a detective story, following Clavius as he follows various clues, and as the mystery unfolds and deepens. There are a few tense scenes as he tries to unravel the mystery and find Christ’s disciples, and though Risen largely feels like a procedural -- think Law & Order: Jesus -- Joseph Fiennes acquits himself well, conveying the world-weary soldier who just wants a day without death, and who can’t reconcile the things he sees.
Directed by Kevin Reynolds, the helmer behind Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Count of Monte Cristo, and, of course, Waterworld, Risen is a well-constructed movie. It starts with an epic battle scene, so you can witness for yourself that Clavius is totally badass. While you can certainly feel the strain of their limited budget, Reynolds knows how to handle himself capably when it comes to action, and he gets more than his money’s worth, delivering an opening that immediately grabs your attention.
While the costumes, sets, choreography, staging, and framing are all solid, the unfortunate thing is that Risen otherwise looks like muddy digital dog shit. From a color perspective, everything shows up as varying shades of brownish-grey that resembles swirling dirty mop water. It’s flat and regrettably ugly, diminishing what could be otherwise have been breathtaking scenery..
Yeshua’s Apostles are painted more as jolly, good-time bros rather than devout, somber followers, as they’re usually depicted. This provides an element of comic relief, which, admittedly, is a bit awkward and doesn’t quite fit with the more serious tone of the rest of Risen. Again, this is an attempt to do something different, to paint a different picture, to show these people as joyous and basking in the light of Christ, and that is to the movie’s credit, but more than that, they come across as goofy and silly, which is sure to rub some viewers the wrong way.
There are a few minor plot holes, and the portrayal of the Jewish leadership is not particularly flattering, but Risen is an interesting attempt to tell a well-known story from a different perspective. More the tale of one man’s redemption than the story of Christ, Risen rises above most of its faith-based counterparts and largely avoids the smug, holier-than-thou pitfalls. Not perfect by any means, Risen should be a welcome addition for viewers with an affinity for both Christianity and cinema, and has the potential to reach a broad, more mainstream audience.