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Risen

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Feb 19, 2016
Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felten star in 'Risen'
Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felten star in 'Risen'  (Source:Columbia Pictures)

The Easter-themed film "Risen," from Affirm Films (a subsidiary of Sony Pictures), is a faith-friendly movie that will thrill its intended audience and give mainstream viewers a more satisfying "Biblical" experience than other recent cinematic adaptations of Judeo-Christian lore.

The story follows a Roman tribune, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes, taking the role to heart and fleshing out the character with nuance and intelligence), as he accepts an series of assignments from Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth). The tasks all unfold from the crucifixion of a rabble-rouser who has whipped the Jewish population of Jerusalem into a frenzy by claiming -- right at the time of Passover, no less -- to be the messiah. Unnerved by the whole business, Pilate -- a Roman who prays to Minerva "for wisdom," and to whom the Abrahamic religion is a puzzle -- essentially wants Clavius to run interference for him, partly in order to keep Caiaphas (Stephen Greif) and the rest of the pharisees off his back, but also to nip further unrest in the bud before Caesar gets wind of the situation.

Fresh from the field of battle, Clavius plunges into what will become a life-transforming experience. The first stop is Golgotha, where the Nazarene in question is being crucified along with two thieves; rather than order his legs broken, Clavius opts instead to have the Nazarene put out of his misery with a spear thrust. But that's not the end of the matter: As Caiaphas subsequently notes while petitioning Pilate for Roman guards at the Nazarene's tomb, the purported messiah has predicted his own death and promised to return to life on the third day. Caiaphas is worried that the religious leader's cadre of disciples will steal the body and proclaim his resurrection.

Less than 48 hours after his entombment, the Nazarene -- whose name we eventually lean is Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) -- does indeed go missing; all that's left is a linen burial shroud with the image of a man somehow stained onto its fibers. Upon quizzing the guards, Clavius notes glaring disparities between their testimonies and the physical evidence at the scene: Ropes that have been snapped by some great force, not cut with knives as the guards claim; a huge, heavy stone hurled yards away, an impossible feat even for a small mob of tomb raiders. Then there's the question of where the guards have suddenly acquired the coins they're using for a drinking binge. The mystery deepens, and the movie becomes a procedural. (When I told my husband about the plot, he summarized it as "CSI: Judea," which is actually pretty fitting -- for the first half, anyway.)

Clavius, being a Roman, sets about his investigation with a methodical, logical coolness. In this, he is aided by an eager young subordinate named Lucius (Tom Felton), who suggests, from time to time, that the wild stories Clavius is hearing might actually be true. Clavius has no time for such fantasies: He orders all the recently dead dug up, in case the purloined corpse has been interred in some hasty shallow grave; he rounds up whatever followers of Yeshua he can find, and cross-examines them; he pays off informants. The story of the film wraps itself around the story from the Gospels, and we meet the whole cast of characters -- not just the disciples, but also Mary Magdalene (María Botto), Miriam (Margaret Jackman), and Joseph of Arimathea (Antonio Gil). Kevin Reynolds, who writes and directs, has a sense for the majesty of the essential story, and he allows the characters to have human reactions to the miracles they're confronted with; he also deftly navigates the join between scriptural and newly invented material -- though not without a few missteps, which I'll get to in a moment.

This juggling at could have been elongated for the movie's full run-time, and it probably would have felt like a glass half-full; but Reynolds has surprises in store, and the plot's tap-dancing around scriptural purity comes to an end with a sudden, daring twist -- I won't say more, but you won't find all the beats of the film's second half referenced in the New Testament. It's a gratifyingly bold and plausible turn of events (plausible within the improbable story that's being told, anyway), and the production's brisk pacing and blend of suspense and humor work well to keep you engaged.

Taken as an adventure movie -- an adventure in faith, as much as anything -- this is a well-crafted, well-performed film. The characters have authentic personalities, which is a relief after so many stodgy depictions of the disciples from past productions. There are also the right number and kinds of bread crumbs: Tantalizing hints that tales of miraculous events might be being told by unreliable narrators, but also carefully calibrated moments that allow the supernatural to brush up against the realistic world the film depicts (so realistic you'll recognize the settings despite the 2,000-year-old setting: Jerusalem, yes, and also the Second Temple).

"Risen" is far from a cheap "swords and sandals" knockoff; it also has more to offer the faithful and the secular alike than recent disasters like Ridley Scott's misjudged "Exodus: Gods and Kings" (2014), or Darren Aronofsky's out and out misfire "Noah" (also 2014). Nor does this film suffer the treacly residue of Catherine Hardwicke's meticulously produced, but Hallmark-shallow, 2006 effort "The Nativity Story."

All that said, it's more the pity that "Risen" takes some decidedly lazy shortcuts, and can't help throwing in some dubious -- or downright incorrect -- elements. It may please the devout to see Yeshua's shroud depicted -- it's clearly the Shroud of Turin -- but throwing in that particular towel, which is almost certainly a fake manufactured in mediaeval times, only undercuts the movie's credibility. (For that matter, it would have been more in line with the text from the gospels themselves had the film depicted the discarded cloth in the tomb as they are described in the Bible -- as strips of linen, not a single large piece of cloth.) Moreover, it's inexcusable that Pope Gregory I's baseless slur against Mary Magdalene -- that she was a prostitute -- is given unthinking currency here. Nothing in the gospels says Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, and some schools of thought suggest she might have been a quite respectable woman of means who helped bankroll Jesus' mission. All the same, in a comic beat, Clavius resorts to asking the men under his command who among them "knows" Magdalene; one by one, a dozen guys raised their hands, and a raid on a brothel ensues. It's a needlessly missed opportunity to set the record straight.

For all the other details that ring true -- Clavius' cultural and temperamental resistance to the idea of a risen savior, which Feinnes plays movingly; spot-on design elements; Pilate's personal disgust and dismay at the way the crowd has bayed for Yeshua's execution, and the casting of Yeshua himself as something other than the usual blue-eyed hunk -- these easily avoidable errors carry outsized impact. They feel like a cynical form of fan service, undercutting an otherwise materially and intellectually well-provisioned work.

Risen

Roman military tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) remains set in his ways after serving 25 years in the army. He arrives at a crossroad when he's tasked to investigate the mystery of what happened to Jesus (Cliff Curtis) following the Crucifixion. Accompanied by trusted aide Lucius (Tom Felton), his quest to disprove rumors of a risen Messiah makes him question his own beliefs and spirituality. As his journey takes him to places never dreamed of, Clavius discovers the truth that he's been seeking.

Info

Runtime :: 108 mins
Release Date :: Feb 19, 2016
Language :: Silent
Country :: United States

Cast

Clavius :: Joseph Fiennes
Lucius :: Tom Felton
Pilate :: Peter Firth
Yeshua :: Cliff Curtis
Mary Magdalene :: María Botto
Joses :: Luis Callejo
Joseph of Arimathea :: Antonio Gil
Polybius :: Richard Atwill
Peter :: Stewart Scudamore
Quintus :: Andy Gathergood
Bartholomew :: Stephen Hagan
John :: Mish Boyko
Thomas/Dydimus :: Jan Cornet
Simon the Canaanite :: Joe Manjón
Thaddeus :: Pepe Lorente
Philip :: Stavros Demetraki
James :: Selva Rasalingam
Matthew :: Manu Fullola
Caiaphas :: Stephen Greif
Miriam :: Margaret Jackman
Centurion :: Paco Manzanedo

Crew

Director :: Kevin Reynolds
Screenwriter :: Kevin Reynolds
Screenwriter :: Paul Aiello
Producer :: Mickey Liddell
Producer :: Patrick Aiello
Producer :: Pete Shilaimon
Executive Producer :: Robert Huberman
Executive Producer :: Scott Holroyd
Cinematographer :: Lorenzo Senatore
Film Editor :: Steven Mirkovich
Original Music :: Roque Baños
Production Design :: Stefano Ortolani
Supervising Art Direction :: Saverio Sammali
Art Director :: Eugenio Ulissi
Art Director :: Ino Bonello
Art Director :: Gabriel Liste
Set Decoration :: Alessandra Querzola
Casting :: John Hubbard
Casting :: Ros Hubbard
Casting :: Camilla-Valentine Isola


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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