Desperately seeking Jesus2/24/2016
Religious films are surprisingly difficult to pull off. For starters, centering a film on a religious story will most likely turn off a segment of the secular audience. Aside from that, budgets for religious films have been steadily shrinking over the years as the major studios have turned to more profitable fare. Finally, anyone making a film with a biblical foundation has to contend with the fact that the important stories have been told at least once in the past, so it can be difficult to not look like a simple retread.
“Risen” avoids the last of these problems and gets around the second through sheer inginuity and talent. The result might not be a complete triumph, but it winds up being something that everyone involved in the film can be proud of.
The story revolves around the days immediately following Christ’s crucifixion. Pontius Pilate and Jewish Pharisees, having heard rumors of Christ’s resurrection three days after his death, fear that some of his followers will attempt to steal the body from its tomb in an attempt to stoke the fires of belief. Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), a Roman Tribune, is tasked by Pilate with guarding the tomb and ensuring that Christ’s body stays where it is. When the body does indeed turn up missing three days later, it falls to Clavius to locate it and expose the fraud of the resurrection.
There are several things within the story that “Risen” does in an original fashion. For starters, as much of the film’s advertising suggests, it casts the story through the eyes of Clavius, who can firmly be described as an agnostic. From that, the hunt for Christ after the resurrection is cast not as a search for a risen man, but rather as a detective story of the search for a corpse and the people who stole it.
Once Clavius sees a resurrected Christ with his own eyes, he abandons his Centurian position and helps the apostles flee to Galilee where they are to meet with Christ once again. Even here, Clavius remains a skeptic. He does not join the apostles as a full-fledged believer but instead in an attempt to find the truth and reconcile what he has seen with what he believes. From this point, “Risen” changes from a whodunit to a surprisingly compelling chase film, as Clavius and the apostles race to Galilee before the following Roman army can capture them.
Make no mistake, “Risen” is not a film that is looking to raise or debate any interesting philosophical questions. Even though it is telling its story in a more unconventional manner, it is still — pardon the pun — preaching to the choir. However, the combination of Fiennes’ strong performance as Clavius and the deft direction from Kevin Reynolds, whose previous credits include “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “The Count of Monte Cristo,” help elevate “Risen” above the rabble of largely disposable Christian films you normally see released around Easter time.
“Risen” suffers from the same general issues that all biblical films do in that its story is more or less on rails. We all know what happens, and no one would dare stray too far from conventional wisdom. But within those stiff confines (and working with a microscopic $20 million budget), “Risen” manages to come out looking beautiful, entertaining throughout and standing as a rare example of a religious film that is handled competently enough to entertain secular crowds as well. CV