Editor’s Note: Risen opens in wide theatrical release today, February 19, 2016.
The “greatest story ever told” – or depending on your perspective, cynical and otherwise, the greatest story ever sold – gets another somber, serious, big-screen treatment in Kevin Reynolds (Rapa Nui, Waterworld, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) latest attempt to move back into Hollywood’s good graces. The “greatest story every told,” of course, refers to the birth, death, and (supposed) resurrection of Jesus (not to mention his teachings gathered in the New Testament/Gospels), the central, defining figure in Christianity, Catholic and otherwise. Reynolds’ solemn, earnest film, which he co-wrote with Paul Aiello, doesn’t focus on Jesus’ life as an itinerant preacher or the moments leading to his crucifixion – the latter covered in grisly, bloody, sadomasochistic detail in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ – but in the immediate aftermath, the 40 days and nights following his crucifixion and death, the disappearance of his body from a tomb, and his resurrection through the eyes of a heretofore unknown, newly fictionalized character, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love), a Roman tribune serving out his latest tour in the conflict-ridden region of first-century Judea under Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth).
It’s a faith-based film, made for a faith-based audience who implicitly and explicitly believe the faith-based message at the center of Risen.
When we first meet Clavius, he’s a war- and world-weary senior officer in the Roman Empire, a tribune turning his skills, experience, and leadership of a Roman legion to his advantage over the latest minor insurrection by Jewish zealots/anti-imperialists. He survives relatively unscathed, but not all of his men are as lucky. When he captures one of the anti-Roman fighters, Barabbas, he executes him instantly, signaling, at least initially, that Risen won’t follow its predecessors or the New Testament/ Gospels’ template story beat by story beat (Pilate releases Barabbas at the same time he orders Jesus’ execution in the earlier, canonical version of the story). Clavius seems to be one of Pilate’s closest confidantes, at least where matters of Jesus as messiah figure, Jesus’ fervent, zealous followers, and armed insurrection are involved. Pilate rightly perceives Clavius as politically and socially ambitious, eager to do Pilate’s bidding if it means advancement. Pilate exploits Clavius’ ambition when Jesus’ body disappears from his tomb leaving only a shroud (of Turin fame) behind, a disappearance Pilate reads – again accurately – as the beginning, not the end, of the Jesus’ cult.
Risen semi-surprisingly segues into crime procedural/mystery-thriller territory, slotting Clavius into the chief inspector role, interrogating Jesus’ presumed followers to uncover the whereabouts of Jesus’ body. At least initially, Clavius, a good, pagan god worshiping Roman refuses to relinquish his beliefs in Roman might and right(ness), in the first-century iteration of rationality and reason, preferring the most likely cause – that Jesus’ followers stole his body from his tomb to support their claims of his godhood and resurrection – rather than the less likely cause – that Jesus was, in fact, the Son of God and rose from the dead. Risen, of course, leaves little, actually no doubt, as to where it or the audience should stand: It’s a faith-based film, made for a faith-based audience who implicitly and explicitly believe the faith-based message at the center of Risen and want to see his story depicted on film, even via a new character who, again given the intention of the filmmakers and the intended audience, undergoes a complete religious conversion to Christianity. He’s Paul from Tarsus, minus the blinding light or the voice of God speaking to him from on-high.
Believers on the metaphorical side of the literal-metaphorical interpretative divide will have a difficult, if not impossible, time finding Risen anything but a tedious, tiresome slog once Jesus makes his long-awaited, celebrity-style reappearance…
Unfortunately, Reynolds abandons Risen’s procedural plot for the spiritual uplift expected of faith-based films made by and for true believers: Jesus (Cliff Curtis, ethnically appropriate) not only makes a return appearance to his disciples (the former twelve turned eleven), but also decides to stay awhile, hang with his followers, share a meal with them, and otherwise fulfill his role as first among first-century bro-dudes, before disappearing abruptly. But once Mary Magdalene drops word that Jesus might make one last appearance in Galilee, the twelve, now including Clavius in full-on Jesus-crush mode, go for a long, leisurely hike, hastened, however slightly, by the unhurried pursuit of a Roman contingent, including Lucius (Tom Felton), Clavius’ former right-hand Roman. Before long, Clavius’ intense, introspective brooding meets Jesus’ piercing, brown-eyed gaze and they once again hang as bro-dudes, sharing a few pious thoughts about faith, religion, and the next world before Jesus permanently disappears (he doesn’t so much as ascend into heaven as walk straight in the sun, setting off a mini-nuclear explosion), leaving his most devoted disciples to spread the word.
By those final scenes by the sea, however, Risen has devolved into a sermon by and for believers, but only believers of the literalist kind. Believers on the metaphorical side of the literal-metaphorical interpretative divide will have a difficult, if not impossible, time finding Risen anything but a tedious, tiresome slog once Jesus makes his long-awaited, celebrity-style reappearance, the unsurprising, predictable result of Reynolds and his collaborators collective decision to desert consensus principles of narrative and drama for Sunday school-level pontificating and lecturing, deemphasizing Jesus’ teachings (love gets one or two shout-outs at best, compassion none) for miracles and the afterlife. The result is a turgid, flaccid disappointment that makes The Robe, the campy, melodramatic, early ‘50s inspiration for Risen (and, in part, Hail, Caesar!), look like a near masterpiece in comparison.
Despite a few unique twists to "the greatest story ever told," Risen is little more than a faith-based film aimed at believers, and nobody else.