I have to admit, I was intrigued to see RISEN because it was poised to tell a story not often told in the movies. Most movies about Jesus focus on his life and ministry. Few tell the story about what happened immediately after he died.
RISEN tells this story from the point of view of a Roman soldier given the task of locating Jesus’ dead body to prove to his followers that he in fact did not rise from the dead. This part of the movie works well and plays like a period piece drama/mystery, but then writer/director Kevin Reynolds takes the easy way out during the movie’s second half, telling a story of conversion that plays like a Sunday school sermon rather than the continuation of the impressive drama which came before it.
As such, RISEN plays like two separate movies: a gritty detective story during its first half, and an everybody-sing-“Kumbaya” tale during its second.
Needless to say, I enjoyed the first half of this movie much more than the second half.
Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), the Roman Military Tribune, is ordered by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to oversee the crucifixion of a man charged with being a Messiah. Pilate fears him because he’s concerned about revolution, but he also intimates to Clavius that there was something different about this man—.
Clavius is present when this man, Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) dies on the cross. Later, when Pilate is pressed by the Jewish high priests to make sure no one sneaks into the tomb to steal Yeshua’s body and make it seem like he rose from the dead, he orders Clavius to post guards. Unfortunately for them, the guards get drunk, and when they awaken, Yeshua’s body is gone.
Disgraced and under intense pressure by Pilate, Clavius makes it his personal mission to find Yeshua’s body in order to prove that the man has not risen from the grave. Clavius decides that if he can locate Yeshua’s followers, then he can find the body, and thus the manhunt begins.
And it continues until Clavius finally locates the apostles, bursts in upon them, and finds Yeshua sitting there among them. At this point, everything changes for Clavius.
Everything changes for the audience as well.
The first half of RISEN is interesting, fresh, and all rather compelling. Joseph Fiennes is excellent as Clavius. He’s the perfect doubter, the perfect soldier for the job. If anyone there can get to the bottom of the mystery and locate the missing body, it’s Clavius. Nearly all of Fiennes’ scenes during the first half of the movie are enjoyable to watch.
And he receives fine support from Peter Firth as Pontius Pilate and Tom Felton as his understudy and protege Lucius. I also enjoyed Maria Botto as Mary Magdalene.
There’s an authenticity to the first half of RISEN that is refreshing and sharp.
But once Clavius discovers Yeshua, the authenticity takes a back seat to Sunday school sermons, and that’s because writer/director Kevin Reynolds simply plows forward with the resurrection story and Clavius’ subsequent conversion without much effort in making either one of them all that believable.
Sure, I understand that for Christians the world over the story of Jesus’ resurrection is already believed, and for moviegoers who don’t believe the story of a man who claimed to be God’s son and rose from the dead is a pretty hard sell. But this doesn’t matter because for any movie to work it must be believable. Now, since the second half of this story is indeed a “hard sell” you’d expect an even greater effort to make it seem real, but little if any thought seems to have gone into telling this part of the story with the mindset that it best be believable.
When Clavius sees Yeshua alive, I want to see it questioned. I want to see Clavius resist and refuse to believe at first, which would be consistent with his character. I don’t want to see smiling apostles and lighthearted conversations and Clavius becoming a willing participant so easily he doesn’t even worry about his position as Roman Tribune. I want blood and sweat and angst, not warm grins and pats on the back. I don’t think that’s how it all went down. It comes off as way too neat and tidy.
Likewise, in scenes where Yeshua sits with his apostles after rising from the dead, and then instantaneously disappears like a magician, I found this phony. It’s just not the way the things work in this world of ours, and whenever any movie equates religion and spirituality with magic it raises a red flag for me. It also calls to mind movie-making laziness.
I’m not questioning the events told in the movie. I’m taking issue with the way they were presented. Something tells me that when Yeshua was with his apostles, and then he wasn’t, that it didn’t happen in a way that he disappeared into thin air, and I expected the movie to make more of an effort to make me believe that this really happened. Show me a real world way that a man is with you one moment and gone the next. He could have at least stepped into another room or into the shadows. But to be there one moment and then poof! He’s gone! That simply is not worthy of this story.
Also the apostles are depicted as being incredibly happy folks. Now, sure, their leader, Yeshua, has actually risen from the dead, so I understand that of course they’re excited. But these were dangerous times for the apostles- their lives were in danger, mortal danger, and I found their happy-go-lucky attitude way too syrupy sweet and fake for my liking. They should have been scared, in spite of Yeshua’s resurrection.
One of my favorite versions of the story of Jesus is Franco Zeffirelli’s JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977), and what I liked most about that version is it made the story believable. Watch that movie and you get the feeling that yeah, this is how it all happened. I believe this.
Such is not the case with RISEN. Nothing in the movie made me believe that Yeshua had risen from the grave. Yeshua was played by Cliff Curtis, who currently plays Travis on FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, and he’s not bad. Again, his interpretation of the role is a lot like the second half of the movie- happy and upbeat.
I also didn’t completely buy Clavius’ conversion story. He is such a strong character early on. I expected his conversion to be more of an ordeal, more dramatic. Instead, it just sort of happens. There should have been more angst, more questioning, to make the conversion all the more satisfying.
Writer/director Kevin Reynolds directed the Kevin Costner films WATERWORLD (1995) and ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (1991) way back when. I remember when ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES first came out in theaters it was royally slammed by critics for not being historically accurate or authentic.
Hmm. All these years later and Reynolds seems to have run into the same problem with RISEN. So much for learning from one’s mistakes. RISEN has a lot in common with ROBIN HOOD in terms of tone, although I would argue that the first half of RISEN is better than all of ROBIN HOOD.
Reynolds co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Aiello, who is also credited with the story. Hmm. I didn’t know Aiello wrote the Bible!
RISEN is a mixed bag. After a promising start and a first half that is very good, the film falters and never quite rises to the occasion.