William Wyler was a German-born Jewish American director responsible for many classics, including what is arguably the greatest Biblical Epic in cinematic history: 1959’s Ben-Hur. For years after helming that box office and Oscar darling, Wyler is said to have joked that it “took a Jew to make a good film about Christ.”
I have no idea if that anecdote is fair to we gentiles, but after viewing this weekend’s Risen, I am at least inclined to say Wyler wasn’t whistling “the Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Because whether we’re followers of Old Testaments or New, we should all believe deep down that the worst possible thing a movie can be is a preaching to the choir. Yet, Risen is only a few hallelujahs short from being another wasted morning at Sunday School.
Ostensibly an amusing premise about a Roman tribune named Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) tracking down the missing body of the Christ, Risen does its damnedest to avoid any sort of tension, ambiguity, or suspense in what is supposed to be a whodunit mystery. Granted, any viewer should know where the case ends—however that does not mean the chase must be made so perfunctory before all the oohs, ahhhs, and seaside semi-conversions.
Despite budget limitations, Risen starts promising enough when Clavius is introduced as the right-hand man to Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth). Conveniently absolved of the most-bloody connotations such a position should hold, Clavius is out slaughtering other Israelites in Judea when Pilate tries to cleanse his hands of their permanent stain. But Clavius does arrive back in time to order the merciful spear that takes Jesus Christ’s (Cliff Curtis) life while on the Cross (here referred to as Yeshua, per Hebrew pronunciation). Of course, that’s not the actual end of the matter.
Soon, Christ’s body has disappeared from its tomb and everyone is whispering about a messiah that has risen from the dead. Thus Clavius has a ticking clock before the presumed corpse rots; he must find the body of a man crucified and pierced by a spear to dispel any resurrection rumors or risk losing Pilate’s favor. Yet, everyone he meets from Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) to the Apostle Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan) cannot stop rambling about love, peace, and life eternal.
… Perhaps even Clavius might just also see the light.
Essentially, the story of Risen plays out exactly how you might expect and is not dissimilar in plotting to the movie-within-a-movie in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! In that other February film, George Clooney plays a fictional Roman consul who surrenders to the blinding light of Christ on the Cross. While it comes a little later for Clavius, both are ham-fisted visions of Romans learning the spiritual error of their ways.
But this other faux “Tale of the Christ” lovingly recreated the Biblical Epics of yesteryear; 2016’s Risen feels much more strangely old fashioned. Less a movie than an expensive TV special on TBN, Risen eschews a three-act structure or much in the way of a pulse in favor of creating a preening and overly-earnest bow to its religious audience. And given the cheers to the Heavens from some in my theater, undoubtedly its piety will appeal to the deeply concerned.
Nevertheless, the power of its very story is supposed to be about how the love of Christ forced a doubter—one of his killers no less—to walk into the light, but there is nothing here in the film to sway anyone except the most devout campus crusaders. Worse still, the film’s fear of straying too far from the scripture will not allow its fictional Clavius to become a thirteenth apostle, which is the ending the film needs like a leper asking for mercy on the road to Galilee.
Director Kevin Reynolds has done period piece epics before with some success—like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and even the History Channel’s Hatfields & the McCoys (2012)—but his storytelling feels decidedly serviceable here, almost afraid to move in any direction that could suggest creativity (and thus a small departure from the gospels). Jesus dies on the Cross, rises again, and eventually teaches the apostles to fish. Still, the Lord never effects Clavius in such a way as to make a story about reclamation worth saving.
For his part, Fiennes is fine as the young (on paper at least) tribune that is already burned out and wary of the world. And as an actor usually famed for his theatricality, he is more taciturn in his delivery, providing a needed lighter touch to the early procedural investigations. But even if the film may aim to articulate the divine, too few actually appear to have genuine faith in the script, and during the moments of wonderment that befall Clavius, even Fiennes at times appears to be a lapsed Catholic trying to find the words at 8am on the Sabbath. The one standout who sells the convictions of the Greatest Story Ever Told is Botto as the younger of the two Marys. Peter Firth is also bordering on fun as a more effete Pilate than Mel Gibson’s recent barrel-chested version of the Roman.
However, much like that film, there seems to be a recent resurrection of pity for the noble Romans. Like The Passion of the Christ, there is sympathy from American filmmakers for Empire builders and career warriors that did not exist 50 years ago in Hollywood. It raises a larger social question that if 60 years after the dawn of the “American Century,” does one empire now cry for the responsibilities and obligations of another? Even in a story where they kill Jesus!?
At the very least, Risen makes sure to note that while there were Jewish priests who desired Christ’s crucifixion, so too did Jesus Himself. Similarly, it is repeatedly underscored that Christ is a Jew. What might not go over so well is that the film returns to the rather grotesque and unfounded rumor that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute or “of the streets,” even making light of how all the men know about her charms well.
Ultimately, Risen is a sermon we have all heard before. Yet, even on that level, it neither informs or presents the material in a fresh and enlightening way. It just goes through the motions for well over an hour and a half—making onlookers ready to bolt for the doors as soon as the last “Amen” is delivered.