Belief may be the hardest thing to capture with a camera, and it's not because of its wholly internal nature.
RisenDirector: Kevin Reynolds
Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis
Studio: Columbia Pictures
US date: 2016-02-19 (General release)
UK date: 2016-02-19 (General release)
They say every generation getsthe media they require. From classy comedies to their crude counterparts, action thrillers to nonstop shaky cam chaos, the changing times dictate changing tastes. It's the same in any genre. Horror films will emphasize the eerie and subtle before turning on the gore, while dramas move from drawing rooms to daily life with relative ease.
For the religious film, times are always tough. Hollywood continues to have a hard time with faith, either sugarcoating it or using epic vistas to counter complex ideas. Belief may be the hardest thing to capture with a camera, and it's not because of its wholly internal nature. Writers just can't seem to crack the code for making God anything more than a sermon, rendered down to good vs. evil basics. A quick look around at our current cultural clime indicates that the public appears to be buying such simplification more and more.
Twelve years ago, Mel Gibson stirred massive controversy (and huge box office returns) with his bloody, brutal The Passion of the Christ. Wanting to take the Bible literally and offering viewers a snuff film-like feel to Jesus' torture and crucifixion, it was meant as a blood-drenched wake-up call, a chance to literally see what He suffered and sacrificed for our sins.
In an election year in the US as political rhetoric dominates religious dogma while at the same time theocracy is suggested within the politics, we get Risen. This movie doesn't question the belief in a higher power. Instead, it asks you why should entertain any doubts at all.
Playing a bit like an ancient cop procedural (the main narrative thread has a centurion and his underling looking for the missing body of Jesus post Resurrection) and retelling a bit of the Gospel according to John along the way, it's an uneven effort, but one far more friendly and embraceable than Gibson's "in your face" evangelism. Risen presents the perfect little conundrum: it's not too preachy, but it's not that inventive or engaging, either. It's safe, and that's part of its charm. It's also a reason why only the converted will come out of this feeling inspired.
Sure, there will be some backlash over the lack of genre givens (no one ever says the name "Jesus" -- the Christ here is called "Yeshua" and is played by New Zealand Maori actor Cliff Curtis) and the Apostles often come across as New Age hipsters, but for the most part, Kevin Reynolds (of Waterworld and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves fame) delivers a confident and respectful effort. It may lack the chutzpah of Gibson's vision, or the star-packed variety hour elements that made Cecil B. Demille's extravaganza's so much fun, but in retelling the Passion in its own non-confrontational way, it gets the job done.
Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, appointed by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to find out what all of Jerusalem is buzzing about. Apparently, after putting him to death, the rebel Yeshua's (Curtis) body has gone missing from the tomb. Rumors are rampant that the man is actually the prophesied Messiah and has risen from the grave. With help from a junior officer (Harry Potter's Tom Felton) the investigation begins.
Along the way, Clavius confronts former associates of the man, as well as his growing inner crisis of conscious. The more he discovers, the more his own view of faith is tested.
For the first hour or so, Risen is ridiculously entertaining. Sure, it's trying to shoehorn a recognizable modern type into an old school fire and brimstone Bible lesson, but we don't mind the initial journey. We meet interesting individuals, check off recognizable Sunday School references, and marvel at how such a small movie can feel so big -- until it no longer does.
Somewhere toward the middle Risen starts to repeat itself, using its at first harmless approach now as a sledgehammer to remind us over and over again that Clavius will convert. That's the main purpose of the movie.
Still, it's a far more inviting trip than the recent rash of pro-God films as admonishments in response to Hollywood's heathenism. While it's always easier to sell religion with sugar than with salt, schmaltzy melodramas and low grade comedies won't get the job done. Neither will wagging your finger at the viewer, showing them how awful they are because the Lord isn't part of their everyday frame of reference. Risen reminds us that there is a basic belief system that one can latch onto when contemporary preachers provide their own individualized interpretations.
Still, the movie struggles to truly work. It's like listening to a nice version of a lecture you've heard over and over again. Also, it needs what Gibson gave The Passion: a powerful visual or storytelling hook that leaves the kind of impression the project is hoping for. Over a decade ago, Jim Caviezel's bloody and anguished face became the new look Jesus for the uncertain post-millennial masses. Curtis' Yeshua won't do that for Risen, but as an attempt to bring more people to the Good Book, it's not a bad effort.