Risen: Will Jesus Finally Stay Dead?

Ben Atwater

Alas, another film about the death of Jesus has been released. Following in the vein of 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, and the even older 1959 Ben-Hur, Risen was released last week to theaters.

While typically not a fan of religious fare, I love period pieces that delve into the age of antiquity, and Risen does just that. Directed by Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds, Risen stars Joseph Fiennes as Claudius, a Roman tribune who is tasked with investigating the disappearance of Jesus’ body after his supposed resurrection. Starting with the most famous execution in the world, Jesus’ crucifixion, the story follows Cladius as he reports to his superior Pontius Pilate, played by Peter Firth, very reminiscent of Charles Laughton in Spartacus. Rome’s policy of foreign occupation essentially dictated that they maintain peace, order, and economic control over the territories. This is why when the supposed messiah ravels up the Judean population, Rome must put an end to it.

Claudius is a multi-tiered character with a suspiring amount of complexity. Thrust into his role as a detective, Claudius tries to balance his role as a Roman enforcer with his drive to be compassionate. Assisted by young Lucius (Tom Felton), Claudius aims to impart his wisdom of how to deal with Roman constituents, who are often resentful of Caesar’s occupation, unto Lucius. Continuing on his trend of playing villainous snobs from both Harry Potter and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Felton’s Lucius is incredibly sniveling and evil, and this pays tribute to Felton’s ability to get into character.

After Jesus’ death, Claudius embarks on an investigation in the age of antiquity to find Jesus’ disciples, as the body has disappeared from the tomb. Taking him around all of Judea, we get to see the wit of Claudius put into action as he questions the suspects and the followers of the new messiah. This is the first half of the film, and it admittedly does feel like a crime investigation show like Law and Order, as scenes are focused on one on one interviews with suspects and investigating crime scenes. This is where the film starts to disappoint. If I’m paying to see a historical period piece about Rome, I expect the same level of scope as Ben-Hur. Yet the film’s scale is rather small, which is disappointing.

After it is revealed that Jesus’ body has truly disappeared from divine cause, Claudius has a change of heart and follows the disciples to meet Jesus north near Galilee. A stark tone in film, they are pursued by Roman troops, as Claudius is now a deserter. With a few intense scenes, this sparked my interest in the story after a lot of scenes that were boring. The ending will not be revealed for spoiler’s sake, but needless to say Claudius finds Jesus and never again goes back to the Roman military.

There are parts of Risen I loved. The ancient cities of Nazareth and Jerusalem look excellent, and the cinematography in the desert is very engaging. Even the costumes are finely tailored. Fiennes is the true stand out here, as the character transformation feels real and not forced. It is also admirable that Risen humanizes the Romans, who are normally the blunt bullies in films about the crucifixion. The story is told from Claudius’ perspective, and one must admire that.

Where Risen lacks is where almost all Jesus related films lack- the preaching at the end. The already referenced Ben-Hur falls victim to this as well. I don’t need to be told that Jesus died for our sins time and time again in a commercial film. Mel Gibson’s Passion did this to the extreme, though that is to be expected. The ending of Risen follows a similar trend, though admittedly is not nearly as preachy as it could have been.

Having been to Israel last summer, it rather irked me when the relatively small lake, Galilee, is portrayed as an ocean expanding the horizon, yet that is a minor irking.   There are about four CGI sequences in this film, and they look terrible.

In the end, I enjoyed  Risen and was taken back to the days of the Roman Empire. I appreciated the relatively restrained approach with regards to Jesus and the excellent performance of Fiennes as Claudius. The score is very encompassing of the region of the Middle East while maintaining a classical orchestral theme. While I would never watch this film again, it is certainly worth a watch at SCOPE movie nights.