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Review: Risen (2016)

Risen (2016)

Directed by: Kevin Reynolds

Premise: Set in Jerusalem just after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Roman military tribune Clavius (Joseph Finnes) is tasked with finding Christ’s body after it vanishes from the tomb. His investigation leads Clavius to question his allegiance.
What Works: The premise of Risen is compelling and it brings a fresh approach to the material. The story of Christ has been told many times on screen and the crucifixion is usually the climax of those films. Risen begins with Christ’s crucifixion and then tells a story that unfolds alongside the resurrection and subsequent appearances of Jesus before his apostles. The movie is essentially a detective story in which a Roman military tribune must discover what happened to the body of Jesus and Risen is at its best when Clavius is trying to figure out what’s going on. The filmmakers establish that Jesus was a threat to the political status quo, both in terms of the Jewish leadership and the Roman occupation, and the hunt for Jesus’ corpse has a political dimension that gives the search some urgency. Actor Joseph Finnes plays Clavius he does so in a very restrained style. Clavius isn’t a hero or even a man with a great spiritual crisis; he’s just a soldier trying to do his job and ends up stumbling into a major religious incident. Finnes plays Clavius well; the character is disillusioned by the brutality of the world and Finnes performance gives the movie a lot of gravitas. Risen differentiates itself from other religious films in its tone. There has been a surge of faith-based titles released over the past few years and a lot of them are executed in a melodramatic style that’s intended to appeal to a narrow audience. The tone of Risen is quite different. It’s very even with the characters behaving in mostly credible ways. The performers generally avoid the hammy acting of faith-based movies and the music and cinematography don’t use ostentatious sounds and images. The realist style of Risen is most evident in the film’s portrayal of life in ancient Jerusalem. The people and their environment look organic; the actors don’t appear like they’ve just stepped out of a makeup trailer and the sets have a practical, lived-in feel. Once Clavius has come to know the truth he joins the Apostles as they go on the run from the Roman authorities. This aspect of early Christianity has rarely been dramatized and this portion of the film includes a likable relationship between Clavius and Peter (Stewart Scudamore).

What Doesn’t: Risen borrows a lot from the 1953 drama The Robe, almost to the point of being a remake. The core religious audience may not find Risen to be entirely satisfying. Some of that is due to the film’s details. The crucifixion is traditionally understood to take place on a hilltop but here it’s shown in a valley. The film also avoids some of the appeals of religious narratives. Audiences come to these movies to experience a spiritual boon. In some movies that’s done quietly through the action but in many films that spiritual moment takes the form of melodramatic proclamations. Risen doesn’t have that. Its style is so staid that it resists the emotional punch that audiences crave from religious art. But Risen tends to underwhelm for general viewers as well. Clavius’ conversion from a Roman polytheist to a Christian believer is quite abrupt and the film misses opportunities to develop his character. He also isn’t established as having any kind of a life outside of soldiering for the Romans and so his conversion doesn’t come with a personal sacrifice. As a result, the moment of revelation lacks a dramatic punch and once he realizes the nature of Christ the drama of the movie goes flat. There’s not enough tension in the chase and the Apostles’ journey doesn’t have an endgame.

Bottom Line: Risen has enough in it that is good or unusual to distinguish the movie in the faith-based marketplace. Its storytelling is flawed and it doesn’t quite carry the premise to its full potential but Risen is a better religious film than has been seen in a while.

Episode: #584 (February 28, 2016)