RISEN (Movie Review)

Joseph Fiennes
*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
for Biblical violence including some disturbing images
Released: February 19, 2016
Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis

Memo to American Evangelical Christians: Risen is the movie you’ve been asking Hollywood to make.

After years of having to put up with subpar small-budget Christian indies, mixed with frustrating megabudget studio entries like Noah and Exodus: Gods And Kings that have dramatically re-imagined the Scriptural text (and its heroes), Risen comes along to finally provide the Christian Movie audience – and Evangelicals in particular – a drama that plays rather than panders to them, produced by a major studio (Columbia), with a production quality that reflects a serious investment of both money and effort.

I say this as someone with no particular vested interest (professionally or personally) in the success or failure of the Faith Based genre, and so I don’t write this as a rallying cry to church-going patrons. I say the following as a point of fact: for those who’ve long protested what Hollywood churns out, who’ve lamented that Christians are drastically underserved at the multiplex (and seemingly even antagonized at times), if Risen is a box office dud and therefore discourages studios from making more movies like it, then you’ll finally have no one but yourselves to blame.

Furthermore, Risen is exactly the kind of Biblical fiction that even Scriptural literalists can get behind. In the tradition of classic Bible epics like Ben-Hur, Risen could also be subtitled “A Tale Of The Christ” as it creates a similar construct: telling a fictional story – around a fictional hero – that weaves itself into the Gospel account.

Yes, the narrative conceit is wholly contrived, and sure, it requires factual liberties of Biblical characters (including Christ Himself) compared to what’s confirmed in Scripture. But the story of Risen is a plausible fiction and a reverent one. It stays true to the nature of Christ and His disciples, even as it posits them in an extra-Biblical narrative. What took place outside the margins of documented gospel almost certainly didn’t happen this way, but it could have.

The inspired basis for Risen actually isn’t an original one (a Max Lucado short story from over twenty years ago took the same approach) but it still remains a clever premise, as it tells the story of Christ’s death and resurrection through the eyes of a Roman soldier.

The film opens on the cusp of Christ’s crucifixion, and its central character is an up-and-coming military tribune named Clavius (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare In Love). Because of his trustworthy allegiance to the empire, Clavius is tasked by Pontius Pilate to oversee this religiously contentious execution to make sure it goes off without a hitch. In particular, that the burial would be secured in such a way that Christ’s followers could not manipulate a tale that their Messiah’s prophesies of resurrection had actually come true.

Suffice it to say, things don’t go as planned (well, not for the Romans anyway).

The disappearance of Christ’s body propels the narrative into a mystery that needs to be solved. A CSI: Jerusalem of sorts, the fallout of the empty tomb unfolds like a Roman empire procedural, with Clavius and his right-hand soldier Lucius (Tom Felton, aka Draco Malfoy of the Harry Potter films) investigating what happened. The film’s first half is about Clavius seeking the truth, and the second is about what he does when confronted with it.

When the story first shifts into that manhunt (or corpse hunt, as it were), Risen loses some of its initial vitality. Scenes grow a bit talky, performed in intense but hushed whispers, and they also carry the weight of inevitability. Clavius, too, lacks an internal struggle as he bears no existential connection to the events; he’s only wrestling with facts, not conscience. That changes, though, when he learns that Christ is indeed alive. Clavius must not only face the implications of that truth but, by extension, put his entire life and status on the line to do so.

Though not on the scale of Biblical epics from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Risen is a first-rate production. Director Kevin Reynolds, who made his career off of blockbuster collaborations with Kevin Costner like Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and Waterworld, is able to capture a grander scope than the modest $20 million budget should allow. And while Risen can’t broach the raw power – or artistic vision – of The Passion Of The Christ, it fulfills its own ambitions well.

Risen doesn’t wield the power to convert, but it does reverently affirm the faith of those who believe. As a result, Hollywood has finally given Evangelical audiences a movie they can believe in. Now it’s up to that audience to give Hollywood a box office return they can believe in too.

(BOX OFFICE UPDATE: After an opening weekend take of $11.8 million, Risen took in more than 50% of its production budget, and will probably earn between $30 to $50 million in its theatrical run, possibly earning a 100% profit margin or more. Risen is no blockbuster, but that level of profitability would more than likely lead to more Christian movies within that $20 million budget range.)

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