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Hollywood has suffered several false starts in the last couple of years in its attempt to revitalize the genre of the biblical epic. Despite boasting massive production budgets and A-list directors and casts, Noah(Paramount) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (20th Century Fox) didn’t interest audiences much. Both went down as two of the biggest box office disappointments of 2014.
There were many reasons, from scheduling to promotion missteps, for their failure, but the biggest seemed to be that both films went out of their way to undercut the clear spiritual implications of their source material, thus alienating the very audience most likely to buy tickets. If that’s the case, Sony’s Risen could be the first Bible-based historical film to reverse the trend.
Rather than dramatizing straight scriptural narrative as The Ten Commandments did in 1956, Risen (rated PG-13 for realistic violence) follows the tradition of classics like The Robe and Ben-Hur, telling the story of a fictional character through the lens of biblical events. Leading actor Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, 1998) turns in a phenomenal performance as Clavius, a Roman tribune charged with investigating the disappearance of Christ’s body after the Resurrection.
Well-paced and sharply written, the first half of Risen does a better job of clarifying the cultural and political context of Christ’s crucifixion than any other film or TV miniseries I’ve seen. As we watch Clavius and Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) trade quips and plot how to manage the Sanhedrin, we’re reminded these players were men of free will, with their own ambitions that rumors of a resurrected Jewish sect leader threatened to thwart. Likewise, the Pharisees’ immediate message-spinning can’t help but bring to mind how our own leaders respond to unexpected events, the truth being less important than which side is fast and savvy enough to shape the public conversation about it.
Amid all this House of Cards–style maneuvering, however, undeniable evidence continues to tug at Clavius, and he determines to discover the facts about Jesus for himself.
At this point, the story shifts away from speculation and sticks closely to events recorded in the Gospels, unfortunately cutting short a narrative arc involving Clavius. It’s while watching the tribune attempt to reconcile his natural skepticism with certain forensic evidence and the accounts he’s hearing from Christ’s followers that his journey feels most compelling.Risen misses an opportunity to go from good to great by following this theme through to the end and forcing Clavius to decide what he believes about Jesus based on the testimony of witnesses.
Instead, he crosses paths with the apostles just before they reunite with the risen Christ (Cliff Curtis) and becomes more of an onlooker. Here, he sees the miracle of the fish recorded in John 21. There, he sees Jesus heal a leper. The relevance of Clavius’ doubts are lost to forgone conclusion, and we begin to feel like New Testament tourists along for the ride. Risen would have been stronger and more profound had it continued to let Clavius wrestle with his belief without seeing.
Still, it’s undeniably one of the higher-quality faith-based films to hit theaters in recent years, with acting, writing, and production values to rival other mainstream releases. And it takes Christianity seriously as an element of the story rather than simply as a marketing hook.
Based on the recent triumphs of indie productions like God’s Not Dead and War Room (and of course 2004’s The Passion of the Christ), Risen seems in a perfect position to score with churchgoing audiences.
Listen to Megan Basham discuss Risen on The World and Everything in It.