Let’s put cards on the table: I am not the target audience for Risen. I am a latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading coastal elite, so I’m already be far from Risen’s target demo, but when you add “Jewish” to the mix you’re really facing an uphill climb. But if the job of the critic is to be honest – in fact, so brutally honest a screenwriter once mailed me an angry letter because he hated my review that much – it is also to be open-minded. So, dutifully, I attended the pre-screening, sticking out like a sore thumb, ready for anything. And you know what? I kind of liked it.
Let’s take a step back. Risen is the story of Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), an ambitious but ennui-riddled Roman tribune working at the peak of Rome’s imperial might as the right-hand man of the governor (Peter Firth) of a province viewed by the Romans as culturally and economically backwards, yet nonetheless vital. It’s also politically unstable, teetering on the thin line of governing while nonetheless suppressing the irreconcilable religious zealots who refuse to acknowledge Roman rule and religion. You are awarded zero points for correctly guessing that the governor is Pontius Pilate, the province is Judea, and the year is 33 AD.
You may be awarded more points, however, for guessing how Risen takes an unorthodox twist on telling that most orthodox of stories. You see, a certain radical Jewish leader named Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) is executed almost as soon as the movie starts; the problem comes when his corpse goes missing, posing a political problem for Pilate as an imperial visit looms. Pilate entrusts Clavius with recovering the body, and with ambitious sidekick Lucius (Tom Felton, AKA Draco Malfoy) embarks on a manhunt that leads somewhere Clavius doesn’t expect, even if everyone else does.
For its first hour, Risen really is pretty good. Staying carefully, er, agnostic on the budding theological mysteries at its heart, it is a well-directed, well-acted, and thoughtful political period piece, as well as a detective story. Director Kevin Reynolds (yes, that Kevin Reynolds) does yeoman’s work keeping the story moving with good rhythm, and giving space to his cast to breathe that crucial third dimension into characters that, as written, could have easily fallen flat. While Fiennes is clearly the anchor, it is Firth as a rational, amoral, thoughtful, harried, and ultimately empathetic Pilate that lends the film the key complexity it needs to generate human interest through that first hour, and if the film suffers for other reasons in its conclusion, it’s no less because of his absence. If some of its attempted moments of comedy fall flat, it’s only slightly the worse for wear.
Risen also does a good job with period details and politics, and avoids some obvious pitfalls. Yeshua, played by ethnically Māori Curtis, is definitely not the blond-haired blue-eyed uber-goy of yester-year, and the portrayal of the Jews is generally as unproblematic as one could hope for in telling this particular story through this particular perspective. Its depiction of Roman military tactics is fascinating, its depiction of the politics of Roman governance of Judea is fascinating, its depiction of both the benefits and costs to local populations of Roman rule is fascinating. None of it is exactly groundbreaking, but it’s all pretty good, and given the alternative possibilities, “pretty good” is pretty good, indeed. Especially given that its key turning point has been spoiled for the entire Western world since the Council of Nicea at the latest, its ability to maintain suspense and momentum for as long as it did is a pleasant surprise.
It’s disappointing, then, that Risen’s key turning point is also where the film starts to slip. It’s revelation – you know, the revelation – poses a three-pronged challenge for the film: how to maintain drama after the film’s central ambiguity is collapsed; how to present the theological content of the film in a way that’s engaging, compelling, and challenging to its audience; and how to create an audiovisual experience equal to the events depicted. Sadly, Risen doesn’t rise adequately to any of these challenges. Which is not to say what transpires is exactly bad, just that it’s underwhelming. The exceptional problem with underwhelming in this particular context is that what it’s depicting is supposed to be literally the most overwhelming thing of all, which makes Risen’s failure to take risks and be daring in its depiction acutely disappointing.
There’s something particularly odd about the precise timing of Risen’s arrival in theaters: in at least its broad strokes, it is weirdly similar to Hail, Caesar! – not the Coen brothers’ latest masterpiece, but the eponymous film-within-a-film in which George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock plays…a Roman soldier in Judea transformed by Jesus’ death and resurrection in the moment. In a way, Risen is precisely the kind of old-school movie that the Coens are nostalgic for; more specifically, nostalgic for our lost ability to unironically enjoy the simpler pleasures of a bygone cinematic age. In that sense, Risen is, at its heart, something more of a throwback than the kinds of more modern films aimed at Christian moviegoers, and in that regard, it works. The disappointment of Risen is that its depiction of the core narrative of the Christian faith is so devoid of any insight that would challenge complacent believers or unbelievers alike. Risen, in the end, is preaching to the choir.