Movie Review: ‘Risen’

Risen

The popular resurgence of Christian cinema has experienced something of a critical backlash in recent years. The reasoning is rather simple and doesn’t involve religion or belief; it’s simply that most of these films just suck. You don’t have to be an atheist or non-Christian to see why God’s Not Dead, Left Behind or Little Boy are ranked among the very worst of any film, and still only make up a fraction of the faith-based filmography. It comes as a mercy that Risen, a film about the Roman Centurion tasked with finding the corpse of Jesus Christ, lacks the ivory tower righteousness and hammy dogma of its faith-based counterparts, and instead offers something more cinematic, engaging and possibly even more interpretive in its own ramblings of theology and belief.

The film opens in the Judean desert, a frazzled and stern man, Clavius (played by Joseph Fiennes), garbed in a desert robe walks into a hut where its owner notices he is wearing the ring of a Roman Tribune. Cut to another scene, the same man, clad in Roman armour leads a legion of men against a small company of Jewish forces. Risen establishes a fierce distinction here, the oppression the Roman legion, whose advanced tactility in warfare easily overwhelm the Jewish fighters. It’s cliched, not very subtle and a little didactic but it firmly establishes the oppression of a culture, whose tyranny over religious belief spanned centuries.

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Risen is interesting, not because it’s convincing but because its qualities as a genre piece consistently overpower its appeal as a faith-based film. Unlike the others in this genre, Risen’s purpose isn’t to sell a tired message as its desperate counterparts do, it’s to be a movie. There are distinct elements of a detective noire here, the physical traits of a classic peplum and it flows like a chase film. With that said, Risen doesn’t always rise to the challenge of some of its dramatic ambitions. The multiple scenes in which the disciples of Christ are interrogated are psychologically stale. Clavius’ cold and skeptical tough guy act never finds a dynamism against the dazzled optimism of Christ’s followers.

What works against Risen, predictably, are its leanings towards faith or Christianity. It’s biased, predictable and it never seeks to question its own morality, which is counter-intuitive to the development of the character Clavius, who acts as the film’s morally ambiguous protagonist. One of the strongest elements of Risen is easily his character, played confidently and thoughtfully by Joseph Fiennes, whose journey to find the corpse of Jesus in this film plays out more like a soul search, a quest for the truth and more importantly meaning in his existence. Ultimately, Risen finds a more enlightened balance here than really any other “Christian” film, its moments of belief and doubt are played for dramatic high-stakes instead of religious diatribe.

If Risen is most guilty of anything, it’s the result of the film’s mysterious premise (which I will leave spoiler-free). All the questions raised or the ideas that set the thematic and emotional groundwork for the film are obstructed, stifled by a grand reveal, a bland revelation that I was honestly hoping against. Fortunately, this doesn’t affect the entirety of the film. Its third act, despite being the least interesting, covers interesting ground between the cold, emotionally distant Clavius and the passionate, brotherly disciples.

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The traits and development of the character of Clavius is pretty consistent, sometimes his cold and distant personality make him interesting and other times dramatically potent. He counterbalances a sense of morality and strict professionalism, which is present in the scene where he has Jesus (referred to as ‘Yeshua’ in the film, played by Cliff Curtis) mercifully impaled, to spare him agony at the stake. Joseph Fiennes actually carries most of the film with his performance as a seasoned veteran pitted against the younger, more earnest Lucius, played by Tom Felton, who’s acting is uncommonly toned down here. Fiennes also does well as a humble subordinate under the tyrannical, decidedly one-dimensional character of Pontius Pilate (played by Peter Firth).

Hardly a gem, but a step in the right direction. Risen, despite its own tendencies to remind us of its foundations as a Christian film, steadily reminds us of the progress to be made within this maligned category of film. It certainly doesn’t warrant the stigma associated with such films. It may be spiritual but it’s also action-packed, cloak-and-dagger and melodramatic, more resembling a sword and sandal piece or the more benign — if somewhat bombastic — biblical epics of Golden Age Hollywood. Risen puts itself in the awkward position of trying to have the final word on a topic that is notoriously inconclusive, but its ambition is admirable. Whatever one’s opinion on this incendiary topic might be, Risen emphasizes its qualities as a film before indulging its own religious precepts, making it a very modest win.

Rating: 6/10

Gary is a twenty-two year old Canadian who partakes in all sorts of sedentary past times (reading, video games, etc.), his favourite of these is watching movies. His love for the cinema runs deep and he is constantly trying to find new ways to engage and approach films (because films are constantly trying to find new ways to engage and approach people). He does this mainly through film criticism, which he sees as both a hobby and a crucial link between movies and those who want to understand them a little more.
  • LenaAFoster

    Tired message? You are 21. It shows. Lousy review and poorly written.. the movie was fantastic. Yet another whiny face critic upset Jesus is in a movie about finding Jesus…the public is loving this movie…why? It is beautiful…

    • KC

      @Lena – Mean People Suck. Ironic considering you are religious, but not suprising as the most judgemental are religious.
      @Gary – Nicely written young man, a fair and honest review. Don’t take offense from someone religious as they only see one side.

      • Gary Shannon

        Thanks for the feedback guys. Any negativity here is just an occupational hazard, I don’t let it get to me, I’d be the wrong one for the job if I did.

        • LenaAFoster

          Well, you find comfort with other atheists? I bet you loved writing that Jesus message and Christianity is a tired message there sport. Occupationmovie critic? Funny. ?

          • KC

            I love that bumper sticker, “Jesus, save me from your followers”. You are a great example, Lena.

          • Will Fraser

            He doesn’t have to love writing it’s a “tired message”, Lena. It’s 100% true and it’s obvious you can’t handle this fact

    • Wow. That’s harsh. I thought the review was pretty balanced and upbeat about the film. And the reviewer is right – the way the message is presented in most “Christian” films is pretty tired. It’s nice to see that some Christian filmmakers have tried to make a proper movie, first and foremost.

      And as to the reviewer’s age, don’t forget 1 Timothy 4:12…

    • Will Fraser

      I’m sorry, but looking through this person’s comment history, Lena has ranted obsessively like a lunatic in every article she or he had come across. And it’s like Lena doesn’t have any sort of reading comprehension. The review states this movie was good. But of course religious zealots can’t handle any sort of criticism or skepticism over their beliefs.

      “Lousy review and poorly written.” Nice job backing up this claim with any sort of evidence.

      “Tired message?” Yes, it is. Multiple movies just over the past few years have been released glorifying Christianity without any sort of respect for any belief outside their worship.

      God’s Not Dead
      Left Behind
      Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas
      War Room
      Heaven is for Real
      Son of God
      Moms’ Night Out
      War Room
      Finding Normal

      And you’d also need to have a bibliography for the amount of Jesus Christ related films that’s been released. How many times do Christian’s want to be reminded constantly that Jesus was great, magical, and powerful?

      • KC

        +10 for Will, -10 for religious nuts

      • Firefly

        Well, I won’t argue that there are many poorly-made Christian movies. But do you honestly expect your average Christian movie to somehow promote acceptance of another religion? According to the author, it “fails” cos of its Christian leanings… really? It’s “biased” cos of its leaning towards faith… really? What else did he expect? What next? I guess then Zoolander 2 is fails because it focuses too much on fashion, or maybe Deadpool fails cos of its bias towards being foul-mouthed instead of traditional and clean? Sure, if that’s your opinion, that’s your opinion. But you can hardly fault a movie for being about what it’s about – it never claims to be anything otherwise. In that same vein, the message isn’t “tired”, it’s one that the author just doesn’t seem to care for (ironically, he accuses the movie of being biased, when he himself is very biased), and that actually does make this poorly written.

        • Gary Shannon

          You seem to have misquoted me. You put quotations on the word ‘fail’ as if I had actually used it in my review. I did not.

          Also, I said its Christian-leanings works against the film, and for me they did. A film can be pro-Christian, I’ve never had an issue with that, but if the movie attempts to paint a character ambiguously, it certainly doesn’t work with using religious scripture as a framework as that’s fairly a BIASED code.

          You also never once mentioned my criticisms in the appropriate context, you think every complaint I’ve made is against the film’s religious foundation, and clearly it’s not. I critique narrative structure and character development, and that’s it.

          Also the point you made with Zoolander and Deadpool is ridiculous, you seem to look at movies and reviews as entities defined by presupposed titles, nothing’s that simple,
          including my review which you have completely misinterpreted.

        • Will Fraser

          “that actually does make this poorly written.”

          Why? Because you can’t handle the fact that your religion is inevitably preachy? A reviewer isn’t biased when he calls out a film for being didactic and shoving its faith toward the audience (a movie unproven in a historical context I might add). This review is being honest. Juding by your previous comments, you seem merely upset that your religion is being challenged. So what? Your religion isn’t untouchable as it once perceived to be.