‘Risen’ Is The New High-Water Mark Of The Faith-Based Film

Maybe it’s because the New Testament is generally more straightforward and upbeat than the Old Testament (see: Lewis Black’s bit on the subject), but perhaps the most striking thing about Risen is how much better a Bible epic it is than Exodus: Gods And Kings. Whereas Exodus cost $140-145 million to make, was directed by Ridley Scott, and starred a who’s who of Hollywood’s (white) A-listers, Risen has Ralph Fiennes’ brother and Smiley from Training Day (as Jesus – talk about range!). Budget figures for Risen aren’t available, but I’m fairly certain it cost considerably less than $140 million.

Risen comes from a partnership between Affirm Films (the production company behind a number of awful “faith-based” films like Moms’ Night Out and Fireproof) and Sony, so it’s not exactly DIY. In fact, Risen director Kevin Reynolds is no stranger to wasting massive budgets himself, having directed Waterworld (okay, perhaps “wasted” is a strong word). But there’s a level of care and thoughtfulness to Risen that makes it rise above the usual Bible fare (Heaven is For Real et al) and at the same time, an absence of overcompensating CGI that differentiates it from its more mainstream cousins, like Exodus, or Noah. Risen embraces the oddness of the resurrection story, without trying to inflate small miracles, neither simplifying the tale as if for small children, trying to parse God’s intentions as for intellectuals, nor creating all-purpose eye candy for the modern moron.

All I knew about Risen going in I learned from the poster, which featured Joseph Fiennes in front of an empty tomb, along with the caption “witness the manhunt that changed the course of human history.” It’s a great poster, and had me expecting some incredible mash-up of The Fugitive and Passion of The Christ, with some gruff Tommy Lee Jones character kicking over yurts while Jesus dyed his hair and escaped by running across water. The film I saw instead lived up to neither the hyperbole of the tagline nor the absurdity of my scenario, which was both a disappointment and a pleasant surprise.

Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman Tribune charged with doing governor Pontius Pilate’s dirty work, a job Clavius doesn’t like very much. The film opens with Clavius dressed in rags, sitting down for grapes at an inn. The inn keeper, noticing Clavius’ ring, asks “Roman, are you?” the film’s first and (somewhat disappointingly) its cheesiest line. This initiates flashback mode, as we travel through the wormhole of Joseph Fiennes’ ostrich-like eyeballs to a few weeks or months before, when he was helping his unit suppress some rock-throwing Judean malcontents.

A battle sequence! It’s nice to see a Christian movie that opens like Gladiator, and while Risen’s battle scene isn’t filmed or choreographed especially well, there’s a charming attention to historical accuracy in the studied way the soldiers use their shields and swords as they advance as one unit. This care shows itself again when Clavius gets summoned before Pilate (Peter Firth), who orders him to go out to “the Nazarene,” who had been crucified the day before, and break his legs (thereby speeding up the dying process in the hopes of dispersing the mob). That the Romans would break the legs of the crucified to make them suffocate faster (denying the condemned the ability to prop themselves up with their legs to relieve the pressure on their arms and chest) really drives home the barbarity of crucifixion without being overtly graphic, or turning Risen into straight up, Passion-style gore porn. Not only that, but the movie trusts us to understand this without spelling it out explicitly. Maybe it goes without saying, but it’s exceedingly rare to be treated like an adult by a film with an overtly religious message.

Clavius oversees all of this, as well as the later entombing of Jesus into his stone-blocked lair, from whence he’ll emerge using Santa Claus magic like a divine Punxsutawney Phil. That we experience all of this through the eyes of a non-believer is Risen‘s great trick. Christian movies tend to be, well, preachy, and letting us become converted bit by bit through minor miracles is a textbook example of show don’t tell. It also saves us the usual narrative of righteous believers persecuted by a malevolent, secular world – this in a film that’s literally about believers being persecuted. Risen seems to understand intrinsically that the righteous and the chaste make nauseating protagonists — there’s a reason Jesus himself hung out with sinners and prostitutes like Mary Magdalene, not insufferable milk-fed blowhards like Todd Burpo.

Shortly after Jesus is cut down from the cross, there’s a feint towards the kind of movie Risen could’ve been, the kind of movie you might expect it to be. An Earthquake cracks a tower at the Roman fort just as Clavius and his young assistant are leaving, and the assistant, played, in a hilarious bit of stunt casting, by Tom Felton, aka Harry Potter‘s Draco Malfoy, says to Clavius, “Poseidon must be angry.” To which Clavius replies gravely, “…some god is.”

But the movie where it rains frogs and the Judeo-Christian God wins a dick-measuring contest against the Roman ones never comes. In fact, there’s no punishment phase at all. Clavius is charged with finding the missing bones of Yeshua, and instead, finds him in the flesh, washing feet and healing lepers and making sure his disciples are elbow deep in delicious fish. The simple fact that Jesus is played by a brown guy (Cliff Curtis, a Maori, to be specific) with curly hair is casually revolutionary.