“Risen”, as the title implies, centers on Jesus’s Resurrection, a central tenet of Christianity and a fairly fantastical story, when you get right down to it, that all of us raised in said church were asked to take on faith. Faith is what makes “Risen” so intriguing, or at least “Risen’s” hook as it initially assumes the air of a sober police procedural with an overworked Roman tribune, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), tasked by his superior, Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), stressed out by an impending visit from the Emperor, to find Jesus’s body post-crucifixion to prevent his believers from pitching him to the masses as the Messiah. This means Clavius assumes the position of a skeptic, seeking out the truth amidst all manner of “riddles and zealous babble”, challenging faith rather than merely affirming it. Ah, but “Risen” was distributed by Affirm Films, and so eventually the film will have to cease with the questions and just re-ratify what everyone knows. After all, no one goes to Easter morning service thinking, “Uh oh, is this the one when Christ isn’t risen?” Nope. He is. He always is.
As “Risen” opens, the Nazarene is crucified. That’s often how the Christian savior is referred to in the context of “Risen” – “the Nazarene.” This is important. The first half of the movie remains very much at a remove from legendary Biblical events, even as they play out on screen right before us, where Jesus’s trial is told to Clavius secondhand and the crucifixion is seen principally from the viewpoint of Clavius, who Fiennes plays in these moments as a man who has a standing appointment at 3 PM every Friday to crucify someone. Clavius is not Heston’s Moses; he is Bogart on a bender, just without the booze. After all, when informed the Nazarene promises his followers eternal life, Clavius sighs and acerbically observes “what a marvelous recruiting tool.” That’s funny!
“Risen” was directed by Kevin Reynolds, the man who long ago helmed a watery movie with the biggest budget of all time. His budget on “Risen” is considerably less and that is not always a bad thing, effectively engendering a gritty kind of feel as it pursues its procedural path, where Judaea come across cribbed from the back alleys of noir much more than the Technicolor-infused scope of a DeMille-ish Biblical epic, underlining the pragmatism with which Clavius faces his task. That, however, becomes something of a curse in the movie’s back half, where the procedural suddenly gets shunted aside for testifying, as Clavius falls in with the disciples and bears witness to the Nazarene.
Here the movie seems to aim for “Ten Commandments” type effects with a “Gospel of St. Matthew” aesthetic, a confusing mishmash where rather than the miraculous deliberately rendered as ordinary, the miraculous just is ordinary. It is not entirely helped by the Maori actor Cliff Curtis’s inert portrayal of the Nazarene, oddly overshadowed by the Disciples who, while not given much individual personality, opt out of dutiful, sanctimonius solemnity to instead exist as a “Can You Believe This Shit?!” chorus.
Clavius can’t quite believe this shit either, though this portion of the film seeks explicitly to make him believe this shit, re-ordering various Biblical parables, like “Risen” is telling him, and us, to just hurry up and believe, okay, like when the Pastor only has time for a brief sermon with highlights rather than a lengthy one with genuine argumentative wrestling. The latter one, the older this raised-as-a-Lutheran gets, is more resembling of faith, at least to my eyes, and it’s why even if “Risen” itself started to lose me, Fiennes himself did not, playing these concluding parts not with ornery denial, or some variation of it, but almost distressed uncertainty. His face, right down to the moment Jesus rises into heaven, wants so much to believe, and yet he still leaves you thinking that belief, in the end, is not always as easy as movies like this want you to believe.