Cinematic Releases: Risen

Andrew reviews the faith based historical fiction, Risen.

Holy crap!
I never thought the day would come but alas there's a first time for everything.  Finally, at long last, a legitimately good Christian financed film will be emerging in theaters this Friday, a far cry from the doldrums scraped off the bottom of the barrel by the likes of Saving Christmas and the recently released God's Club.  With a real filmmaker behind it (Kevin Reynolds of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld) and a gifted ensemble cast including Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth and Cliff Curtis, Risen, no pun intended, rises and towers far and away above the faith based and financed films which have come before it.  Besides being among the few religious films to depict the resurrection and ascension, with most climaxing on the crucifixion, Risen goes the Ben-Hur route by telling the familiar story through the eyes of a skeptical outsider.  Instead of a Jewish merchant with Roman ties, Risen prominently features Joseph Fiennes as the fictional character Clavius, a Roman Centurion tasked by Pontius Pilate to investigate the disappearance of the messiah's body from the tightly sealed tomb upon which he was placed.  It's a fresh and surprisingly engaging approach to a timeless story aided by a cast which, for a change, doesn't sleepwalk their way through the film and actually enrich an already fascinating concept.  

Originally planned in 2013 by writer-director Kevin Reynolds and screenwriter Paul Aiello as an unofficial mystery sequel to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Risen is a project that could well have catered to the faith based audience only but with the aid of it's cast and crew winds up reaching out with universal appeal.  Technically speaking, Risen is quite good in terms of cinematography and utilizing natural locations in Malta and Spain and there's more attention to the gory details than I was expecting.  While not on par with the ultraviolence of Gibson's film, Risen manages to be a hard PG-13 rated film with it's images of rotting corpses recently taken down from the cross as pestilence and flies buzz about and eat away at the dead.  Not since Ken Russell's The Devils have shrouded bodies in sheets dumped into a insect filled pit been this graphic, giving Christians viewers it's own eyeful of disturbing images.  There are moments when low budget CGI flames, animals and sunsets bleed through, reminding viewers they're seeing a faith financed film, but for the most part it's all on camera.  In terms of acting, Joseph Fiennes imbues his agnostic Roman with confidence and collected cool and for once the Roman soldier isn't your stereotypical thug but an intelligent yet conflicted figure who approach the investigation with logic and deductive reasoning.  Equally strong, if not stronger, is New Zealand based character actor Cliff Curtis as Yeshua (never once is he referred to as Jesus).  Playing against the usual expectations of a white actor donning a beard and long hair, Curtis' take on the messiah leans closer (and more realistically) towards middle eastern descent.  It's a wholly refreshing and surprising interpretation which again adds to the overall experience.

I just came for a shower and a shave!
I won't join the Christian crowd by immediately declaring Risen a masterpiece or even a great film because it isn't.  The third act tends to lose it's steam and drag it's feet somewhat and the weak CGI sticks out like a sore thumb.  But, considering how generally poor the faith financed dramas are in general, Risen is years ahead of the rest in terms of technical, contextual and acting quality.  Some of the less experienced extras can't help but chew the scenery but when most of the picture is lead by Joseph Fiennes, the shortcomings are easy to ignore.  While we already have Ben-Hur, taking the perspective of a Roman on the fence about his own beliefs or lack thereof in the idea of the messiah was a sound way to go instead of pushing a perfunctory Hallmark Television retelling.  I went in expecting another Fireproof and War Room and instead got a more theologically interesting film than Mel Gibson's viscerally driven bloodbath.  It's not without it's problems but there's enough in Risen that works so well that I've no shame in recommending it.  This could have gone the route most faith based movies do and that it managed to be a good and watchable film in it's own right is kind of miraculous.  

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- Andrew Kotwicki