Boy, this one took me by surprise. Risen is shockingly good, a low-key, grim and dusty Easter movie, a film that deals with the subject of Christ’s resurrection quietly, unsentimentally, and is all the more effective for doing so. It’s a film that confidently strides a line between naturalism and transcendence, a film where the miracles of early Christianity are treated matter-of-factly, without fanfare. It’s a Christian film, intended for an audience of Christians. As a (I hope) practicing Christian, I found it powerfully inspiring. I also respected its craftsmanship, the meticulous research into the first century of the Christian era, and the powerful acting of its outstanding cast.
Joseph Fiennes stars as Clavius, a Roman military tribune (the rank between centurion and legate), assigned to Palestine, 33 CE. He’s an efficient and effective military leader; respected by his soldiers, intelligent, organized, unsentimental and tough. He’s also sick unto death of death. His business is death, whether putting down a zealot uprising or supervising a crucifixion, and we sense his disgust with it, how the stench of dead bodies fills his nostrils. In one conversation with his immediate supervisor, the prefect Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), he is prodded to speak of his dreams for the future; a farm outside Rome, marriage, a family: peace. But all that seems like the most distant pipe dream. He does pray, he tells Pilate, but only to Mars. Why bother with any more distracting beliefs?
Every day, it seems, he’s summoned to headquarters, so Pilate can give him another assignment. Secure the body of this crucified Nazarene. Place a guard over the tomb. And then, of course, find out how on earth that body managed to disappear. It plays like a police procedural, with Clavius doggedly tracking down every clue, every hint, every possible witness. And he’s assisted by a younger subordinate, a second-in-command-in-training, Lucius (Tom Felton. Yes, Draco Malfoy’s in the movie, using his father’s name).
And then, his investigation leads him to Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto). And from there, to a room in which the Twelve are gathered. And with them, of course, is Yeshua (Cliff Curtis).
And Clavius remembers crucifying him. He remembers every detail of his face; he knows its the same man. Now, impossibly, alive. Alive, not even badly hurt. Scars, perfectly healed, in the right places. And he can barely process it. He knows that what he’s experiencing is impossible; he also knows it is, in fact, actually happening. Yeshua is risen. How can that be?
I love that Jesus is called, accurately, Yeshua in this film. And I love that he’s played by Curtis, a wonderful, veteran actor, who has spent his career playing various ambiguous ethnicities–a Colombian, an Arab, a Latino, the Dad in Whale Rider. In fact, he’s Maori, from New Zealand. He’s not Jewish, but his look works in this film. At least, he’s not the blonde-haired Scandinavian Jesus image my own Church so overuses. Curtis’ Yeshua has a wonderful, welcoming smile, an openness to and insight into all his disciples. In his encounter with Doubting Thomas, for example, he doesn’t so much scold him as tease him; a lovely choice. And Clavius, still unravelling a mystery, but now one with greatly expanded elements, essentially, unimaginably, goes awol. Doggedly tracked by the ever-loyal and efficient, but now seriously baffled Lucius.
It’s a film that describes the most familiar events in the Christian world. It tells a story I’ve heard since early childhood. And yet it’s also a film I found constantly, shockingly surprising. The emphasis on Clavius, this outsider, this tough, cynical professional soldier, is what holds our interest. It becomes more than just a faith-promoting story; it’s also rather a nifty mystery. Either way, though, it works.
In part, this is due to the actors; Fiennes has never been better, giving Clavius a wonderful combination of command and vulnerability. Felton and Firth are also both terrific. (As my wife said, leaving, she didn’t much like Pilate, but she felt that she understood him at every turn). I also loved Stewart Scudamore’s generous, impetuous Peter. And I loved the no-nonsense, straightforward direction of Hollywood veteran Kevin McCarthy (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Waterworld, The Count of Monte Cristo), who gives the film a consistently gritty look, and just the right, unfussy pace and rhythm, and manages to tell that familiar story without needless sanctimoniousness or adornment.
I’ll grant you that I loved this film in large measure because it confirms my own beliefs. You may react differently. Still, I’m also a film guy, and this is a wonderful film. As Christian films go, in its own quietly effective way, this is a far better film than, say, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, or those old sword-and-sandal epics from the 50s; The Robe, for example. I liked it a lot as a movie. I loved it as an affirmation of my faith.