*Warning: Potential Spoilers*
Risen has been put in a very interesting position as a movie- on the one hand, even people who aren’t religious generally know the story of Christ’s crucifixion. On the other hand, even extremely religious people stop there and go back to the beginning of the story or to his teachings in the middle. What Risen has done is to tell us the story of what happened in Rome after the tomb was sealed and the officials thought the scandal was over. Even more interesting, the story has been told from the perspective of a Roman guard, a nonbeliever who is tasked with solving one of the biggest mysteries of all time.
Joseph Fiennes stars (and I do mean stars, even in a movie with Jesus Christ he is literally the only character that seems to matter) as Clavius, a powerful and respected Roman Tribune (I gather this is basically an army commander, but for how often the word is used in this film, they’re not exactly interested in explaining what it means to the audience) who is tasked with discovering the location of Christ’s body after it vanishes from a sealed tomb. If a body is not presented to the people of Rome, Pilate (Peter Firth) worries that a risen Messiah would cause rebellion and unrest to spread. Clavius is joined by his new assistant Lucius (in a twist any Harry Potter fan would appreciate, Tom Felton) and begins one of the most famous manhunts in history. Cliff Curtis stars as Jesus, called by the Hebrew name of Yeshua, and part of me wishes this wasn’t the story of his death just so we could see more of him.
Ever since first seeing the trailer for this movie, a part of me wondered what I would possibly see in just under two hours that wasn’t explained in the two and a half minutes the trailer had shown. I mean, everyone knows how the story ends- no body was found and the mystery helped to define one of the world’s most prominent religions. Surprisingly, there is a great deal about this story that the trailer doesn’t tell you, so that when you get into the Roman-style Law-and-Order montage, you’re both surprised at how fast it’s going and intrigued as to what is coming in the next, since there is still another half of the movie to see. I can tell you what you won’t see, and that’s character from anyone other than Fiennes. Clavius grows with the script (as well he should, given the subject matter), but no other characters seem to exhibit anything in the way of growth or backstory or even substance.
Though Tom Felton is listed as a title character, his character gets maybe seven lines, and his longest sentences come when he’s technically reading words that Clavius wrote, instead of anything that comes out of his own mind. Other potentially interesting characters are hidden for most of the film- Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) is only given two or three scenes to tell her part in this tale (which is odd, considering how big it is, being one of the first to discover Yeshua’s body has vanished) and disciples Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan) and Peter (Stewart Scudamore) are barely used for half the time (though plenty interesting to listen to, given the circumstances). The movie does use “Doubting Thomas” in a very interesting way, however, though at first viewing you might just miss it, it’s so subtle.
One surprise (though honestly considering the subject matter you’ll feel a little silly for being surprised) is how gritty and gross this movie is. The narrative begins with Clavius putting down a rebellion in the hills and returning sweaty and bloody and gross before being immediately being sent to oversee the execution of Yeshua and the other crucified men. That’s one level of disgust, the constant blood and sweat and overall grimy nature of the movie, though based on the time setting, it makes sense. Then you can dive into the pit of bodies (not literally) that the crucified get thrown into behind the crosses, and when they start digging up bodies to try and find where Yeshua has been hidden, the audience is treated to half rotted bodies that you have to look at for awhile, just to make sure they aren’t Yeshua (and Clavius points out, after a week it’s not like anyone can tell who they were supposed to be). These more gritty scenes are paralleled with more beautiful ones- Yeshua’s ascension, the disciples in their fishing boat, Clavius finally speaking to Yeshua under the starry sky, all of which both set us firmly in the time period but also give us a glimpse into the religion that the movie is centered around, but from the outside and without ever feeling like someone is trying to convert you. The soundtrack is also a wonderful contributor towards setting the time period for us, and as soon as I have refreshed my iTunes budget, it will be on my computer for several weeks.
This movie is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination- the continuity of Fiennes’ face alone is enough to drive you insane- but if you choose to go and see Risen, it’s not because you believe it will be the best movie of the year. You see it for the story, for the side of a tale that has been told for hundreds of years and to think about that tale from an angle you never would have considered.
Just to give you a taste of the score, click here for one of the best songs of the movie.