"Risen" is unlike any Biblical "epic" you've ever seen.
For one thing, there's nothing really epic about it — except the story it tells. If you've seen King of Kings or The Greatest Story Ever Told, let alone Ben-Hur, you know what an epic looks like — and sounds like: it looks Big (a cast of thousands) and it sounds Loud (a soaring score). Risen is smaller and quieter.
But this doesn't mean Risen isn't remarkable. So I'll remark.
It begins grandly enough, with Romans doing what they did so well: conquering. And the sword-and-sandals part of the movie is very good. One is glad never to have seen the tips of spears wielded by the Tenth Legion. Scenes in the desert (Spain and Malta stand in for ancient Israel) are always grand.
But when the legion returns to Jerusalem, the film's modest budget shows, especially in exterior shots, which director Kevin Reynolds wisely keeps to a minimum. Mr. Reynolds oddly saves an epic "money shot" for the film's tail end, as the Emperor Tiberius' barges approach the holy city — all to frame Pilate's quip (which a number of films have used versions of) that this new cult will soon be forgotten.
But Mr. Reynolds has crafted a decent movie out of the resources he had: a crisp script by him and Paul Aiello and a generally fine cast, led by Joseph Fiennes as Clavius, a tribune of the Tenth, who is more than just a superb soldier. He's also something of a sleuth.
Pilate charges him with wrapping up the execution of a certain troublemaker from Nazareth, which Clavius does with dispatch. But when the body of the deceased man — crucified between two thieves — disappears, the governor puts the tribune on the case. (Pilate is played superbly by Peter Firth.) Clavius becomes for a time a first-rate detective, interviewing witnesses who've been heard repeating what the tribune takes to be a ludicrous rumor that this crucified man, called Yeshua, has risen from the dead.
Mr. Fiennes is ideal for this sort of role, because his eyes project intelligence as well as any actor in the business. (Think of him as the Bard in Shakespeare in Love.) Fiennes, a Catholic, recently met Pope Francis, whom he describes as "spiritually connected and deeply authentic," and that might be said of the actor too. (Fiennes is on a spiritual roll of sorts, having recently completed a film, The Last Run, which is an unofficial sequel to Chariots of Fire, following on with the story begun in that earlier film of the Scot middle-distance runner and missionary Eric Liddell.) Having gone to gladiator school prior to filming Risen (no, really), Fiennes also has the physicality — and thus the menacing presence — that makes you believe he'll get to the bottom of this missing-body nonsense, quickly and efficiently.
Trouble is, Clavius can't find the body of Yeshua. Two of those he interviews, a prostitute named Mary (the Argentinean actress Maria Botto) and one of the eleven surviving followers of Yeshua, Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan), aren't much help, because, as Clavius remarks: "Yahweh deranges them." So he decides to exhume the body of another crucified man, which he delivers to Pilate so the governor can give a good report to Tiberius and the Sanhedrin can claim the Resurrection never happened.
There are some very nice details, as when — having spent a day examining corpses — Clavius gets the stink of death off of his hands only by rubbing them in a rosemary bush he keeps on a table in his rooms. Or when he sticks his head into a legion barracks and asks his soldiers if any of them know the woman called Mary Magdalene: cautious glances are exchanged before nearly every legionnaire raises his hand.
What's missing is the awe that truth should inspire.
The conceit of the film, you'll have gathered, is that — unlike other movies about the life of our Lord — Risen begins with the Crucifixion and follows the forensic quest of a skeptic out to solve a crime, ostensibly the grandest of grand larcenies. What Clavius finds, of course, is rather more than he bargained for.
Alas, the police procedural part ends quickly, for a reason I won't reveal, and then we're back in the desert.
What's unusual about the film is Christ. As portrayed by Māori New Zealander Cliff Curtis (a lookalike for the image on the Shroud of Turin), Yeshua is an unfamiliarly physical presence. To be sure, Jim Caviezel's gritty Jesus (The Passion of the Christ) was physical, although in a vastly different way, as was the more ethereal Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth. The Yeshua of Risen is joyful in a way I've not seen, except maybe in movies about Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s — he's a wide-eyed man hugger, almost a hippie, guru-like, but — forgive me for saying it — not especially Christ-like.
There are marvelous scenes of the fellowship of the Apostles, and perhaps the most memorable characteristic of Risen is its humanity, which also comes through in the interactions of legionnaires, and, of course, in the warm and smiling Son of God Himself. All-too-human, perhaps.
Rich Peluso of Affirm Films, the production company behind Risen, has described the movie as not so much Biblically based as "Scripturally harmonious," and Mr. Fiennes has spoken of the film as neither traditionalist nor revisionist, and that's all fine. So why did I leave the film thinking that something was missing?
Many of the right elements are there, including — principally through the lips of Bartholomew and Simon Peter, played with a kind of lovable combustibility by Stewart Scudamore — the proclamation of Yeshua's divinity.
What's missing is the awe that truth should inspire.
Risen is rated PG-13, presumably for the film's early battle sequence — and for its depiction of the Crucifixion. With Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter oeuvre) as a young aide to Clavius, Antonio Gil as Joseph of Arimathea, and Stephen Greif as Caiaphas.
Brad Miner. "The Tribune: a Review of "Risen. The Catholic Thing (February 22, 2016).
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing and a senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former literary editor of National Review and the author of Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, The Concise Conservative Encyclopedia: 200 of the Most Important Ideas, Individuals, Incitements, and Institutions that Have Shaped the Movement, Good Order: Right Answers to Contemporary Questions, The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man's Guide to Chivalry, and Smear Tactics. He lives in Westchester County, New York.Copyright © 2016 The Catholic Thing
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