Thursday, February 18, 2016

Review: "Risen"

"Risen" has the unfortunate timing of arriving a couple of weeks after "Hail, Caesar!", the Coen brothers' spoof of old Hollywood mores. George Clooney starred as a pompous stiff of an actor playing a Roman officer who gets swept up in the adoration of the Christ. Then I saw the ads for this movie and thought, "Uh oh..."

At second blush it seems like it has the potential to be an ill-thought attempt to mash up Biblical tales with modern storytelling tropes, with Joseph Fiennes playing a Roman tribune tasked with investigating the disappearance of Jesus' body. It starts off with all the hallmarks of a crime procedural: talking to witnesses, gathering evidence, unexpected twists.

I think I may have even muttered under my breath, "CSI: Judea?"

But after these early hesitations I warmed to the movie. It's well-acted and earnest without becoming cloying. A lot of those Golden Age epics touching on Christian themes could be smarmy as all get out, but director Kevin Reynolds ("Waterworld"), who co-wrote the script with Paul Aiello, keeps things sober and on an even keel.

Fiennes, as ambitious officer Clavius, acts as our clear-eyed observer into the Resurrection mythology. He's skeptical without being an amoral heel who only cares about power -- like Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), who just wants things tidied up before the Emperor arrives for a visit. He orders Clavius to put an end to the crucifixion and get rid of the bodies.

Except, of course, Jesus' corpse goes missing, and the people start whispering about having risen from the dead. Clavius, along with his impressionable new right-hand man, Lucius (Tom Felton), starts the task of ferreting out the truth. Eventually this forces the rational, pragmatic Roman to start questioning if miracles really are in the offing.

Cliff Curtis plays Jesus (here called Yeshua in Hebrew), whom we first see turned to bloody bits at the end of his ordeal. But this is not "The Passion of the Christ," obsessed with the rending of flesh, but the humanistic tale of what came after. Things build to Clavius being presented with Jesus after the resurrection, alive and smiling, showing his disciples the holes in his hands and side. The Roman decides to follow as they flee to Galilee, his role transformed from conducting interrogations to bearing witness.

The Apostles are depicted as everyday men capable of great faith and doubt, who are ensorcelled by this purported son of the one true God. Stewart Scudamore is a powerful presence as Peter, the oldest and unofficial leader of Jesus' followers. He even gets to show unexpected flashes of humor.

"I haven't every answer," Peter responds to Clavius' many inquiries. "We're astonished, too."

I didn't think I'd like "Risen," but the movie surprised me. It's neither a mushy call to the faithful or a revisionist take laboring to cast doubt on scripture. Rather, it simply depicts how the story of Jesus might have played out in the moment, without that overly dramatic sense of portent that normally invades films about Christianity.

Whether you're a doubter, true believer or indifferent, it's a story of peace and hope worth embracing.

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