The bible has no shortage of great stories with the potential to inspire great movies. Yet, few modern biblical epics do these stories justice. From The Passion of the Christ to Son of God, so many of them either focus on the wrong message, bring nothing new to the table, or just come off as manipulative. Fortunately, Risen is a pleasant surprise from Affirm Films. It might not be Ben-Hur, but the film is consistently well made and well told. Most importantly, it understands the teachings of Jesus and presents his resurrection from a unique standpoint.
Although Joseph Fiennes has always had the burden of living in his big brother’s shadow, he’s really one of our more underrated actors. He gives a compelling lead performance here as Clavius, a Roman Centurion and right hand man to Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth). Clavius is in attendance at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, effectively played by Cliff Curtis. When Jesus disappears from his tomb, Clavius is charged with finding the body along with his aid Lucius (Tom Felton). The further Clavius investigates, though, the more he starts to believe that there might indeed be a messiah.
This easily could have been just another straightforward retelling of Jesus’ story. What makes Risen stand out is how the filmmakers tackle the subject matter from the perspective of a Roman soldier. Unsurprisingly, most movies about Christ don’t exactly depict Romans in the most positive light. Here, however, we’re offered a multi-layered portrayal of a flawed man torn between logic and faith. The film follows Clavius on a road to redemption where he ultimately learns that any sin can be forgiven. Fiennes is often gripping, conveying all of his character’s inner turmoil and confliction through powerful body language.
Director Kevin Reynolds has made quite a few visually impressive movies, such as The Count of Monte Cristo. While Reynolds’ direction here is solid for the most part, Risen can have a made-for-television feel at times. One could easily see something like this airing on the History Channel. With a more ambitious director behind the camera, we probably could’ve gotten a lot more inspired, striking imagery. Then again, we also could’ve gotten another Exodus: Gods and Kings, which had astounding production values and a mostly misguided narrative.
Risen knows what it wants to say and gets that moral across without taking cheap shots. It’s a humble and sincere picture that even manages to incorporate a few moments of subtle humor. After all, religion doesn’t always need to be brooding and joyless. If you’re not a particularly religious person or are totally against the notion of religion, Risen isn’t likely to convert you. For those with a spiritual side, though, it just might reaffirm your faith in bible movies.