Risen is a fascinating film in what it gets right, and its major strength is its main weakness.
It’s the story of Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), a Roman tribune assigned to find Jesus’ dead body after it’s been assumed that his followers have stolen it. It’s in the tradition of The Robe, Barabbas, and of course, the all-time Oscar champ, Ben-Hur. It’s the Christ story from the perspective of the unbeliever.
What’s near-impossible to do in this cynical age is to present something clear, especially if it has to do with faith. The film, without any degree of “preaching to the choir,” presents the story that the Bible lays out: Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose again. Some of the political and religious leaders of the day conspired to promote the story that Jesus’ body was simply stolen, and that he never rose at all. Yet he appeared, especially to his disciples, several times, and was ultimately taken to heaven after giving them a commission to go out and make disciples. It’s all there. It’s not presented mysteriously, nor is it presented in a way that could be read any number of ways. According to the film, these things occurred.
Of course that makes the film something of a Rorschach test. As a believer, I was choked up several times at the depiction of events that resonate intellectually and emotionally. Those who don’t believe these things occurred historically may find the same scenes foolish, or perhaps borderline cheesy—though the film keeps any possible cinematic cheese to a minimum.
Risen’s strength is that it’s somewhat objective and straightforward in its presentation of Jesus and his actions. This isn’t the soft haze of a De Mille classic, or the rousing orchestral strings of a mid-50’s epic. Since historical truth is at the center of the main character’s quest—What really happened with Jesus after he died?—the film takes pains to present events with a kind of casual realism.
The film is more PG Son of God than R-rated Passion of the Christ, and the presentation of violence is worthy of study by other filmmakers. There is a great deal more violence suggested than actually presented, a rare triumph for any film attempting this. While not reducing the significance of the Biblical events depicted, the film also keeps a lid on the traditional religious visual and aural trappings associated with powerful Biblical events and keeps things relatively simple and direct, and at something of a cool distance. Director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Waterworld, and TV’s Hatfields & McCoys) hasn’t done a feature in a decade, and shows he still has the ability to present a strong narrative in a place and time different from our own.
While the cinematic distance works, and works well, for the depiction of miracles and other spiritual manifestations, it doesn’t work as well for the main story. This is the story of a military man searching for the truth, [spoiler alert], beginning with deep cynicism and ending up believing. Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) can be an intense and deeply emotional actor. He’s always the former here, but isn’t allowed to be the latter. Of course, as a military man, his character is self-contained and personally disciplined. But as he continues his spiritual journey, we are kept at the same cool distance as we are from the miracles. We are allowed to see his story, but not get deeply involved in it. Many times the camera is at a distance that shows us the ancient buildings and strengthens the sense of place, but that same distance keeps us watching Clavius instead of identifying with him. Fiennes is capable of the emotional moments necessary to do that, but the script and direction keep him at a distance from us.
The disciples are generally presented well, with one exception. Batholomew (Stephen Hagan) is shown as something of a goofy early-‘70s hippie. And while enthusiasm and joy are understandable in context, this interpretation is just too much. It ventures into Bartholomew and Jesus’ Excellent Adventure territory.
The depiction of Jesus, however, is a small miracle (pun intended). The casting finally eschews the traditional American vision and gives us an actor who is very similar to what current anthropologists think Jesus might have looked like. He is subdued, but strong. There is more Jesus here than in Ben-Hur, and less than in Passion of the Christ. Jesus is a supporting character within the film, and that cool distance that the film brings to the miracles extends to the presentation of Jesus. There is a great challenge in presenting Christ as the Son of God, and the film generally succeeds there. He is holy, to be sure, but as real as he is holy.
There is one great moment in the film, and it may be the most successful in connecting good filmmaking with the heart of the faith story we’re experiencing. (Skip this paragraph if you’re going to see the film.) Clavius has been looking for Jesus’ disciples, hoping that he’ll eventually find out the plot to kidnap the body, locate it, and get Pilate off his back. In one of his searches, he breaks into a room of hiding disciples, and we feel a combination of success (he found what he was looking for!) and dread (oh, no, the disciples have been discovered!). Then as Clavius looks around the room at the strange faces, he eventually comes upon one he recognizes, the man he saw dead on the cross just a few days before. It’s a stunning, lovely moment, with equal parts discovery and disbelief—the perfect beginning of a serious journey of faith.
The film could use more connection with its main character. But what it gets right outweighs what it lacks. It’s a valuable contribution to the genre of the religious film and in parts, an excellent demonstration of how to present the impossible.