The trailer for Risen declares it “the most important manhunt in history”, which means they obviously haven’t seen The Fugitive. Let’s tread a bit carefully, though. I’m not about to knock anyone’s religion, but if Risen has a problem, it’s that it takes a stance on the divinity of Christ.
This isn’t a theological or ethical problem; it’s a narrative one. See, Risen bowls along quite agreeably as a sort of police procedural, benefiting from the mystery of whether a man really has risen from the dead or not. But when it makes a decision on this, the intrigue is lost and your interest wanes a bit.
Yes, a police procedural. Battle-scarred Roman tribune Clavius (a beefed-up Joseph Fiennes) is busy shoving his sword through people’s heads for praying to the wrong gods, when he’s summoned by Pontius Pilate. One of the men being crucified is thought by some to be a Jewish Messiah, and the Romans don’t want any trouble. His followers are on about the guy having announced he’d rise from the dead after three days, so if Clavius can seal and guard the tomb effectively till Monday and prove them wrong, then happy Easter.
But he delegates the task of standing guard to a couple of soldiers, who sleep on the job and wake to find the stone rolled away and no Jesus (entertainingly, they have Midlands accents: Biblical and swords-and-sandals films have always gone with well-to-do British accents to represent the ruling classes, but Risen goes one step further and adds a nice comic touch by giving the working stiffs regional English dialects. I think there’s a scouser in there somewhere too). So Clavius starts investigating.
At this point, you’re enjoying the fresh twist, porting the Greatest Story Ever Told into a sort of CSI: Jerusalem, and Fiennes is holding his own as the weary, skeptical detective trying to get the job done because the chief of police doesn’t want unrest on his patch. He chases down leads and follows the trail like any TV cop would. It has a sense of humour, too: there’s a running joke about Pilate’s messenger constantly turning up to summon an increasingly tetchy Clavius, ripped from Blackadder’s Elizabethan series but no less funny for it.
I liked the ambiguity it played with at this point. We didn’t know whether Jesus’ mates had sprung his lifeless corpse from the tomb to maintain the illusion of God’s grace and grab some respite from persecution – which could’ve worked as a metaphor for Christianity’s enduring narrative as smoke and mirrors towards a greater good, if that’s the way you look at it – or if he’d been playing a straight bat and was now mooching around before heading upstairs to sit by his father’s side. Clavius, a non-believer, grows less dubious the deeper he gets into the case, allowing us to entertain both possibilities, and Fiennes plays this very well. Then at a certain point, Risen 100% makes up its mind and answers the question for us, destroying any tension or suspense.
You can understand why. There is a market for faith-based films, after War Room was a surprise US box-office hit at the back end of last year, and Son Of God, adapting the History channel miniseries The Bible, made $67 million worldwide. You go where the money is. Risen has taken around $32 million in the States so far, with The Young Messiah soon to follow for an Easter release. American Christians in particular are enjoying seeing celebrations of their faith on screen, and why not: it’s a medium that has shied away from overt declarative religiosity until recently. For its demographic Risen will be a welcome, even slightly leftfield, addition to the Christian film canon, but in narrative terms it would’ve been better off sitting on the fence a bit more.
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