Risen (2016)

Directed by Kevin Reynolds
Written by Kevin Reynolds & Paul Aiello

Christian movies have become a subgenre over the years, whose output ranges from the likes of the harsh but powerful The Passion of the Christ, the light and sentimental Heaven is for Real, and the darker film Noah from visionary filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. This year’s entry into the genre is Risen, a film from a director who himself is seeing a rebirth to his career. Kevin Reynolds, known for his work in the 1990s on such films as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld, has not made a film in a decade, but sees his return behind the camera as an impressive foray into biblical times and inspired storytelling. The story of Jesus Christ has been told many times and many ways over the years, so fresh perspectives on the subject are always welcome.

Even though the story of Jesus is well-known, I’d still like to take some time to summarize, since Risen takes a rather new spin on the story, even if it borrows heavily from others. For instance, if you have seen the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! this year, then you won’t be surprised to hear the premise of Risen, which follows a Roman tribune named Calvius (Joseph Fiennes), tasked by Pilate (Peter Firth) with securing the body of Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) after his crucifixion, as the Nazarene had foretold of his rising 3 days after his passing. Pilate, hoping to dispel a possible unrest in his province should the body be stolen from its tomb, hopes Clavius can find the body when it disappears one night. Along his journey, Clavius meets with disciples of the Nazarene who tell stories which frustrate his search. But when he joins these disciples on a journey, he begins to see what they see.

Usually I would discount this type of film, this type of narrative. Often they are delivered in a very glossy, rose colored lens which provides overly inspirational schmaltz, whose focus on the message outweighs how they get there, often failing in conviction. With Risen, Reynolds infuses the story with such subtlety and realism that the narrative develops in a surprisingly organic manner, and as a result is very convincing. The film takes place in a time period and culture that feels very real, as though this would have been as it was during the time of Christ. Clavius is just a man doing his job for an Empire that believes in many gods, seeing Yeshua as a fanatical prophet capable of inciting the people under their rule.

With this framing the actions of Clavius, and the events which take place, the film unfolds in such a way as to be convincing to the core. Even when the unbelievable happens, it becomes believable, as we see the events from the perspective of Clavius. The majority of the film surrounds the pseudo-investigation by Clavius, which revolves around interviewing anyone who claims to have seen or heard of the risen Yeshua. These interviews are sometimes harsh and sometimes funny, like that of Apostle Bartholomew. How the film manages to insert this type of humor into this setting is impressive, and just another reason why the film succeeds in authenticity and in entertainment. Why wouldn’t the Apostles of Yeshua be simple men, amazed and totally taken by this man, why wouldn’t they also have a sense of humor?

Seeing how effective Risen is, it surprises me to no end that the film is not being released a little close to Easter, the holiday which celebrates the very thing the film is about. However, allowing the film to coincide with Lent from beginning to end is also likely a better idea than waiting until the end, when the story of Jesus has otherwise been exhausted. Either way, I can see this film being very successful at the box office if word of mouth is as strong as it should be, given the film’s star power lacks behind Passion‘s Mel Gibson. Although I had no expectations coming into Risen, I was quite taken at the film’s adept ability to translate such a well known story into something a bit miraculous on screen considering there are no A-listers involved, and Reynolds hasn’t sat in a director’s chair in a decade. Although, miracles are what the film is all about in the first place.

*** – Very Good

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