Mark Reviews Movies


RISEN (2016)

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kevin Reynolds

Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis, María Botto, Luis Callejo, Antonio Gil, Richard Atwill, Stewart Scudamore, Andy Gathergood, Stephen Hagan

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for Biblical violence including some disturbing images)

Running Time: 1:47

Release Date: 2/19/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 18, 2016

The premise of Risen is ingeniously logical. It recognizes that the disappearance of the body of Jesus would have been a mystery before it would become one of the central, capital-M Mysteries of Christianity. Given the predictable conclusion upon which the movie arrives, it's a little surprising that the screenplay by director Kevin Reynolds and Paul Aiello allows for moments of skepticism about that Mystery.

Ultimately, though, this isn't a movie for skeptics. It is unabashedly for believers, who don't need to be told why Jesus' body disappeared three days after his death. They might like having that story confirmed by a character who is an avowed skeptic—even if that confirmation comes via a piece of speculative fiction. The way the movie all but forces the character to have that revelation, though, kind of undermines the movie's other key point, which is all about the quality of the unknown in faith.

These characters see what happens, so obviously, it's easier for them to believe it. Late in the movie, one of Jesus' disciples points out how difficult it will be for those who are not witnesses to such events to believe them, yet here's a movie that sets out to replicate the act of witnessing. Maybe the movie's argument could have had a more meaningful, less obvious impact if it had left room for at least some doubt—without needing to go so far as, say, finding the body.

The confirmation comes late in the story, although perhaps not late enough. Until then, it imagines a Roman tribune named Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) as he navigates the political aftermath of the crucifixion of Jesus, who is called Yeshua here. Clavius' legion, under the command of Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), is tasked with fighting against armed uprisings by the Hebrews of Roman Judea (In the opening battle, the rebels are led by the man whom, according to the Biblical story, Pilate pardoned instead of Jesus). After the battle, Pilate summons Clavius (It's almost a running joke how many scenes end with the prefect summoning him, but then again, all of the scenes with Pilate are amusing in how awkwardly expositional they are). The prefect orders Clavius to oversee the execution of a Nazarene whose death sentence has caused a stir among the people.

The first appearance of Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) hints that Reynolds is attempting something different. There is nothing romantic or transcendent about the figure on the cross as Clavius inspects the body of the man who has died—his death coinciding with dark clouds that hang over Jerusalem and a tremor that cracks the city's walls. The man's mouth is agape. His eyes are open and empty, with a single, dry tear of blood under one of them.

Nothing about his appearance suggests anything unique, and if not for Clavius' pity upon hearing the wailing of the man's mother from the crowd, he would have ordered the man's legs to be broken along with the thieves crucified at his sides. If not for the appearance of a man from Arimathea named Joseph (Antonio Gil), who says he will lay the body of the executed man to rest in his family tomb, this body would have ended up in the mass grave behind the execution grounds to be covered with a handful of lye. Even without seeing the crucifixion itself (Clavius later offers a description of that process to a disciple who's overly eager to become a martyr), the sense of abject cruelty in this scene is palpable.

Three days later, the tomb, which Clavius sealed, is empty. The body is gone. Pilate and the Pharisees are convinced Yeshua's disciples have stolen it in order to give the appearance that the man's prophecy of resurrection has come true. Such rumors could be dangerous to Rome and the religious leaders, so Clavius, with the aid of an ambitious centurion named Lucius (Tom Felton), investigate the circumstances of the disappearing body.

Clavius investigates the scene, questions witnesses, digs up recently dug graves, and interrogates Yeshua's disciples. It's a detective story, really, with fine performances from Fiennes, as the doubting Roman who is looking for what Yeshua preached, and Curtis, who offers a joyful depiction of the holy figure—a man who seems happier to be reunited with his friends than to offer sermons, which is a nice, down-to-earth touch.

That, of course, brings us to the obvious, which is that a movie aimed at the faithful about the Jesus' resurrection is not going to leave the central question unanswered or even slightly uncertain. When the movie does make its big, inevitable reveal, it succumbs to the obvious and the odd. The third act is not as preachy as one might expect, but it also features, for some reason, a chase scene involving Roman soldiers seeking Clavius, who has abandoned his post to follow the disciples to Yeshua's assigned meeting place.

Whether intentional or not, the movie portrays Clavius undergoing a subtle change of heart without the divine presence of the man he's seeking. The tribune displays compassion and mercy to people who are, according to his duty, his enemies. That's the point, right? It's not enough for Risen, though, which eventually seems obligated to eliminate the subtle in favor of the definite.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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