Genres have strict definitions, and the faith-based-film genre is particularly inflexible. These movies are almost solely Christian in ideology, unyielding in their exclusivity, and not particularly generous with their budget. It’s refreshing, then, to see something like Risen, which makes a variety of small deviations in content and production to set itself apart from the pack.
Yes, Risen is still very, very Christian, but it gives itself room for some doubt about Jesus’s resurrection. Yes, Risen is made in the golden-age-of-Hollywood mold like a modern-day Ben-Hur, but at least the production value isn’t bottom of the barrel. And although in reality Risen seems like a real-life version of the faux film Hail, Caesar! from that latest Coen brothers movie, at least it’s not as painfully preachy as other films in this genre, like last year’s War Room. Nothing could be worse than War Room.
Risen focuses on Roman Centurion Clavius (Fiennes), a general who has spent his life slaughtering people who dare question the Roman Empire and who commands 100 soldiers responsible for doing the same thing. He’s trusted by prefect Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), which is why Pontius assigns him the responsibility of overseeing the crucifixion and burial of a supposed Jewish messiah, Yeshua (Cliff Curtis).
The task goes as expected, even though there are crowds of would-be rioters protesting Yeshua’s death and others spitting on his body (Jewish people are not presented well in this movie), but then something shocking happens: Yeshua’s body, after being entombed in a cave blocked with a boulder wrapped in wax, disappears. The two Roman guards in charge of the tomb have no idea recollection of what happened, begging Clavius to “explain” it to them. But what he can explain? He needs answers, and he needs to find Yeshua’s body. Otherwise, isn’t everything he believes plagued with doubt?
So begins the “CSI: Jerusalem” portion of Risen, with Clavius and his men kicking in doors, questioning people like Mary Magdalene, and trying to reclaim Yeshua’s body before an uprising by enslaved Jews and Yeshua’s followers threatens what the Romans have built. “You look for something you’ll never find,” Mary Magdalene says, and her certainly only adds to Clavius’s mystery.
If you’re expecting a list of the miracles performed by Jesus, as seen in the aforementioned Ben-Hur and of course discussed in the Bible, you’re in luck! We see Yeshua provide a feast of fish for his followers and curse people with leprosy, and for the religious audiences inevitably seeing this movie, these are strong scenes that will reaffirm their faith. But it’s nice that Risen veers in a few different directions, like offering another explanation for what could have happened to Jesus’s body, and casting an ethnic-looking actor, Curtis, as Jesus, flying in the face of the blonde, blue-eyed, and white portrayal of him that has dominated Christianity for so long.
Ultimately, Risen is certainly a step up for this genre, and it’s more open-minded than you would expect. But this is still a movie made for a captured Christian audience, and it will be those viewers who will like it best.
Review: 3 out of 5 Guttenbergs