The popular resurgence of Christian cinema has experienced something of a critical backlash in recent years. The reasoning is rather simple and doesn’t involve religion or belief; it’s simply that most of these films just suck. You don’t have to be an atheist or non-Christian to see why God’s Not Dead, Left Behind or Little Boy are ranked among the very worst of any film, and still only make up a fraction of the faith-based filmography. It comes as a mercy that Risen, a film about the Roman Centurion tasked with finding the corpse of Jesus Christ, lacks the ivory tower righteousness and hammy dogma of its faith-based counterparts, and instead offers something more cinematic, engaging and possibly even more interpretive in its own ramblings of theology and belief.
The film opens in the Judean desert, a frazzled and stern man, Clavius (played by Joseph Fiennes), garbed in a desert robe walks into a hut where its owner notices he is wearing the ring of a Roman Tribune. Cut to another scene, the same man, clad in Roman armour leads a legion of men against a small company of Jewish forces. Risen establishes a fierce distinction here, the oppression the Roman legion, whose advanced tactility in warfare easily overwhelm the Jewish fighters. It’s cliched, not very subtle and a little didactic but it firmly establishes the oppression of a culture, whose tyranny over religious belief spanned centuries.
Risen is interesting, not because it’s convincing but because its qualities as a genre piece consistently overpower its appeal as a faith-based film. Unlike the others in this genre, Risen’s purpose isn’t to sell a tired message as its desperate counterparts do, it’s to be a movie. There are distinct elements of a detective noire here, the physical traits of a classic peplum and it flows like a chase film. With that said, Risen doesn’t always rise to the challenge of some of its dramatic ambitions. The multiple scenes in which the disciples of Christ are interrogated are psychologically stale. Clavius’ cold and skeptical tough guy act never finds a dynamism against the dazzled optimism of Christ’s followers.
What works against Risen, predictably, are its leanings towards faith or Christianity. It’s biased, predictable and it never seeks to question its own morality, which is counter-intuitive to the development of the character Clavius, who acts as the film’s morally ambiguous protagonist. One of the strongest elements of Risen is easily his character, played confidently and thoughtfully by Joseph Fiennes, whose journey to find the corpse of Jesus in this film plays out more like a soul search, a quest for the truth and more importantly meaning in his existence. Ultimately, Risen finds a more enlightened balance here than really any other “Christian” film, its moments of belief and doubt are played for dramatic high-stakes instead of religious diatribe.
If Risen is most guilty of anything, it’s the result of the film’s mysterious premise (which I will leave spoiler-free). All the questions raised or the ideas that set the thematic and emotional groundwork for the film are obstructed, stifled by a grand reveal, a bland revelation that I was honestly hoping against. Fortunately, this doesn’t affect the entirety of the film. Its third act, despite being the least interesting, covers interesting ground between the cold, emotionally distant Clavius and the passionate, brotherly disciples.
The traits and development of the character of Clavius is pretty consistent, sometimes his cold and distant personality make him interesting and other times dramatically potent. He counterbalances a sense of morality and strict professionalism, which is present in the scene where he has Jesus (referred to as ‘Yeshua’ in the film, played by Cliff Curtis) mercifully impaled, to spare him agony at the stake. Joseph Fiennes actually carries most of the film with his performance as a seasoned veteran pitted against the younger, more earnest Lucius, played by Tom Felton, who’s acting is uncommonly toned down here. Fiennes also does well as a humble subordinate under the tyrannical, decidedly one-dimensional character of Pontius Pilate (played by Peter Firth).
Hardly a gem, but a step in the right direction. Risen, despite its own tendencies to remind us of its foundations as a Christian film, steadily reminds us of the progress to be made within this maligned category of film. It certainly doesn’t warrant the stigma associated with such films. It may be spiritual but it’s also action-packed, cloak-and-dagger and melodramatic, more resembling a sword and sandal piece or the more benign — if somewhat bombastic — biblical epics of Golden Age Hollywood. Risen puts itself in the awkward position of trying to have the final word on a topic that is notoriously inconclusive, but its ambition is admirable. Whatever one’s opinion on this incendiary topic might be, Risen emphasizes its qualities as a film before indulging its own religious precepts, making it a very modest win.