A regular collaborator with Kevin Costner, Risen writer/director Kevin Reynolds has given us everything from Waterworld to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to the Samuel L. Jackson led flick 187 and the uncomfortably squirm-inducing James Franco film Tristan and Isolde.
In other words, who knew what to expect when Reynolds was chosen to helm Risen, an Affirm Films production being released by Sony during the Lenten season that plays somewhat loose with Biblical history yet manifests itself as a surprisingly moving, involving and surprisingly entertaining look at the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ or, as he is referred to throughout the film, Yeshua.
Reynolds has attracted a surprisingly strong cast, surprising because these types of faith-based films, and this is a faith-based film, seldom attract performers of such critical acclaim even if most of them likely qualify as B-listers at best. Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) portrays Clavius, a Roman Tribune tasked by the corrupted and impatient Pilate (Peter Firth) with squelching a potential uprising and finishing off this crucifixion of this man called Yeshua. Clavius, of course, honors Pilate's wishes and even does his piece to hurry along the process. Clavius allows Yeshua to be removed for proper burial, yet under strict orders ensures that the tomb remains guarded and sealed. The guards, exhausted from days on the road without food or rest, give way to drink and when they awaken the next day this Yeshua is nowhere to be found.
At this point, Risen almost begins to play out as an investigative thriller as Pilate orders Clavius to find the body before any potential uprising can take hold or the people can possibly conclude that this Yeshua has, in fact, risen.
Despite its diversions from Biblical history, Risen may very well capture the wonder and spirit and charismatic nature of faith better than many of the other films throughout cinematic history that have tackled this subject matter. Deeply human with light touches of heart and humor throughout its nearly two-hour running time, Risen doesn't just portray Christ as this untouchable King of Kings but captures the light, spirit, unconditional love and all-embracing acceptance that is so seldom portrayed with any believability. New Zealander Cliff Curtis (Live Free or Die Hard) portrays Yeshua's almost unfathomable tenderness and quiet acceptance in scenes that mostly play out after the crucifixion when nearly all the apostles abandoned him yet He follows through in word and deed and spirit and in ensuring the love and hope that had been planted while alive. As I left the theater, it occurred to me that this was one of the very few times I'd seen a faith-based film where I felt like the filmmaker truly captured why people followed Christ. As Bartholomew (Steven Hagan), who has just been asked by Clavius why they would all follow Yeshua despite such great risks, says in a scene near the film's end when Yeshua is quietly performing a miracle for a leper, he simply points at the scene unfolding with such sweetness and beauty and says "That is why."
Risen isn't a powerhouse film. It's not filled with towering performances or mind-numbing imagery like Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, though it certainly doesn't flinch while portraying the crucifixion or the brutality that was a daily way of life. In many ways, Risen is an almost straightforward account made better by a strong ensemble cast, stellar production design and a devotion to capturing the soul of the story. It does so in a way that is filled with richness and authenticity and an accessible spirit that makes the film one of the more deeply personal and intimate portrayals of the story to ever be captured on the big screen.
Tom Felton, of Harry Potter fame, excels as an ambitious lieutenant assigned to Clavius who learns his brutal ways and begins to see the tiny fractures in Clavius's murderous facade as he becomes more and more impacted by his encounters with these Christians. Peter Firth gives his usual dependable performance as the corrupt Pilate, while Maria Botto captures the unwavering devotion and awe of Mary Magdalene. Hagan's portrayal of Bartholomew is, at first, almost jarring as he almost comes off with a hippie-like aura that weaves together surfer dude with flower child with childlike wonder. The more I watched Hagan's performance, the more I loved it and he had me hooked when Clavius tried to undercut his giddiness by pointing out his abandonment of Christ at the Cross - watch Hagan's face as he processes the truth of this statement then, somehow, taps back into that Christlike wonder and faith.
While the special effects in Risen occasionally seemed a tad cheesy, that wasn't nearly enough to lessen the impact of a beautiful story brought beautifully to life with a remarkable weaving together of humanity and holiness that brings faith to life in a way seldom captured with any sincerity in a Hollywood film.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic