Risen (2016) / Adventure-Mystery
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for Biblical violence including some disturbing images
Running Time: 107 min.
Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis, Maria Botto, Luis Callejo, Antonio Gil, Richard Atwill, Stewart Scudamore, Andy Gathergood, Stephen Hagan
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Screenplay: Kevin Reynolds, Paul Aiello
Review published February 21, 2016
Some have called Risen a Bible-inspired version of TV's "Law & Order", "CSI" or "Without a Trace", wherein a respected Roman tribune named Clavius (Fiennes, Strangerland) is tasked by Pontius Pilate (Firth, The Greatest Game Ever Played) with uncovering the whereabouts of Yeshua/Jesus (Curtis, Last Knights), who has gone missing from his tomb in the hotly contested region of Judea. In terms of story ideas for a faith-based movie, produced by Sony's evangelical pictures wing, Affirm Films (makers of such films as Soul Surfer, When the Game Stands Tall and Heaven is for Real), it's certainly a fresh one, even if it doesn't jibe with the events as described in the New Testament, but if you don't mind the creative license, it's respectful to the Christian audiences it is intended to inspire.
War-weary Clavius had ended Yeshua's time on the cross with a spear in the torso to end the suffering, placing the body not in the mass grave nearby, but in its own cavernous tomb. Nearby Pharisees entreat Pilate to seal the tomb so that Yeshua's followers would not steal the body and claim Yeshua had risen from death as foretold after three days. Pilate, sensing a weakening of Rome's claim on the region should the people think Yeshua their Messiah, agrees, but after the third day, Clavius investigates to find the seal had indeed broken and no body has been found inside. Pilate orders Clavius to either find the body or find another means to end the story of Yeshua's power from taking hold throughout the land before the arrival of the Roman emperor Tiberius.
Risen is directed and co-scripted by Kevin Reynolds, who is no stranger to action-adventure stories, having most famously been at the helm of such Kevin Costner blockbusters like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld. It's not a bad film in terms of its technical achievements, with decent action, some impressive acting from the leads (if a bit hammy at times), and a modicum of intrigue. The story is a bit too familiar to generate genuine suspense for those who know the Biblical story of Jesus' resurrection well, and may seem somewhat anticlimactic for those few going into it without even a passing knowledge of what Risen is about.
However, even a top-of-the-line faith-based film like Risen isn't quite good enough to garner much crossover appeal for non-believers just looking for a good film. Many of the story elements seem flat, the character motivations sketchy, and the story arc given Clavius, who goes from dutiful Roman who worships Mars (the Roman god of war) to ultimately having to confront the reality of perhaps another truth before him, falls into a predictable pattern, as well as fails to be truly engaging given how the stoic Clavius is written to be merely a vessel for the film's message of faith rather than a fleshed-out character with a history that extends beyond just what's necessary for the purpose of the movie.
As for its historical context, that's where Risen gets much murkier. Despite Clavius's devotion to Mars, Tom Felton's (Belle) supporting Roman centurion Lucius refers to "Poseidon" as the god who is showing disfavor after an earthquake crumbles a nearby building. "Neptune" is what the Romans would have actually referred to for the god of earthquakes, rather than the Ancient Greek's Poseidon. The film also displays the burial cloth through which Jesus of Nazareth is said to have left his image, referred today as the 'Shroud of Turin', which some people still believe is authentic despite radiocarbon dating showing that the cloth's age extends no further back than the 13th Century. Even some theologians will bristle at the depiction of Mary Magdalene (Botto, My Life in Ruins) as an adulterous woman who habitually slept with many men, including Roman centurions, when there is no evidence to support she was even a prostitute.
While Risen is to be respected for trying a different spin on an age-old story, ultimately it fails in its attempt to make a film that will entertain many beyond those who are already devout believers in Christ and his resurrection, much less actually convert a non-believer into becoming a person of Christian faith. Its inspiration is continuously undermined by its clunky dialogue, especially in its ham-fisted attempts at narrative exposition at every possible turn. Affirm Films seems to be heading in the right direction in trying to get non-churchgoers to seek their family movies out and show people of faith in a positive light, but the bad storytelling moments too often keep Risen more risible than rousing.
©2016 Vince Leo