Updated: Nov 13, 2020
A Biblical detective story : Risen tells the story of the Messiah manhunt, a Roman Tribune is tasked with finding the body of Jesus as claims of his resurrection threaten the power base of the Roman occupation and the Jewish priesthood.
Hollywood Biblical epics were once solemn affairs on a monstrous scale that would be thrust on to the TV schedules on Easter weekend to help ease in the post family meal snooze. Staying awake through Cecil B. Demille offerings is a test of will. Recent offerings have been caustically dismissed from Christians and critics alike. The near laughable Noah (2014) was derided by all and Exodus: Gods and Kings of the same year, had all the trappings of old school epics, including a painfully overwrought running time, but did little to justify the tag other than to place the word in front of “failure”.
Hollywood has long been aware of the financial rewards of Biblical storytelling. The TV series “The Bible” was an astounding success and Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ has shown studios that the market and audience exist, but trying to broaden appeal of such projects risks alienating the original demographic and providing a product that finds little success. Risen stumbles perilously between the camps of human drama and Christian transcendence handling one with confidence and the other with unclear objectives.
The story opens as Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) rests at an inn and begins to recount the events of his recent weeks, sending us back to an encounter that is all immediately blood and sand. Clavius leads his men in an attack on Barrabas and his men, putting the recently released fugitive to the sword himself. It is a visceral start. They return to the city of Jerusalem, weary from the fight, before Clavius can even clean the blood from his armour he is summoned by Pilate, played with imperious angst by Peter Firth. He is ordered to ensure the body of Jesus (still hanging in agony upon the cross) must not be stolen to avoid the clamour of his followers claiming resurrection.
What follows is a curious blend of biblical costume drama and procedural detective story. There is a relentless escalating tension as Clavius comes under intense pressure to produce a result. the soldiers ordered to guard the tomb take refuge in the Jewish temple, telling a tale of night time marauders stealing the body. Fiennes plays the interrogating cop with precision. Quickly unpicking inconsistencies and analyzing the power plays behind events.
While the story is played out in this sun drenched Roman film noir, it is breathlessly engrossing. Surrounded by incompetence and tasked with an impossible responsibility, Clavius bears the encroaching mystery with resolute practicality. As the possibility of finding resolution increases he presents Pilate with a decomposing corpse. Pilate complains he cannot identify this corpse. "but the face, I can't tell" he complains. Clavius allows a hint of a smile. "Nor can anyone else" he proffers.
The film has a series of interview or interrogation scenes of key figures, including fascinating battle of wills with Mary Magdelene. The interrogation of Bartholomew is an engrossing presentation of the irrepressible elation of the proto Christian faith in the face of Roman oppression. Clavius threatens the disciple with crucifixion, demands he tells him where the followers of Jesus are hiding, Bartholomew hesitates, his face wracked with fear then he breaks into an effusive grin, announcing "Everywhere! They are everywhere!"
As we reach the inevitable moment that Clavius is confronted with the truth of the resurrected Christ and his entire reality collapses to the floor, so does the strength of the film's convictions a little. Pilate, enraged at the betrayal of the Tribune who choses to abandon his post ponders "My right hand turned against me. How could he follow that Hebrew?" A centurion proffers the explanation that perhaps the tale of Jesus returning from the dead is true. Pilate retorts with a gruff tone "Well, if it is...kill him again!"
We are treated to a hurried final act which lacks the style and pace of the rest of the film. Non believers may feel the film limps to an obscure finish, Christians might feel that the weighty core of the story has not been approached with the confidence it deserves. It is difficult to preserve the story of resurrection and ascension spoiler free but Clavius serves as an undocumented eye witness to the core events in the Gospels from the crucifixion to the ascension. Clavius is there as the disbelieving rational man, the violent murderer and fixer that has a much longer journey to Jesus' teachings than his disciples and whilst the Bible gives us the template of the Road to Damascus conversion archetype, it is carried off here with grace and dignity.
Originally pitched as an unofficial sequel to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" this is a thoughtful and well constructed telling of the tale of the events in Jerusalem and beyond. A new angle on the relentlessly fascinating tale of the humble carpenter that changed the world.