Risen: Faith-based feature bridges gap between substance, style

Even if you’re a non-believer, the Christian story of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection is a familiar one cinema has told incredibly well with “The Passion of the Christ.”

Seeking to put a new twist on a familiar tale, the new release “Risen” approaches the story of Jesus’ crucifixion from a refreshing new angle, focusing on Roman Tribune Clavius and his search for Christ’s body following the resurrection.

Approaching the film from the perspective of a minor character evokes playwright Tom Stoppard’s fantastic comedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” which views Shakespeare’s masterpiece “Hamlet” through the eyes of two messengers.

By centering the film around Clavius – an ardent skeptic – the plot allows “Risen” to appeal to a broader audience base and is not limited to a strictly evangelical message.

Played by “Shakespeare in Love” lead Joseph Fiennes, Clavius is methodical in his pursuit of the body of Jesus, known as Yeshua the Nazarene in the film. Fiennes brings a refined authority to the role and his stoic command is the most complex acting found in several years within the faith-based genre.

Much of the film feels like a TV crime procedural leading hacky film critics to dub the film things like “CSI: Jerusalem” and especially has the plot structure of a typical serialized television show from start to finish.

It’s in scenes led by Fiennes that “Risen” is strongest, especially as Clavius struggles with reconciling his skepticism with things he witnesses first-hand. Much of his performance is in the eyes, where viewers can get lost as viewers can almost see the wheels turning in Clavius’ head. Acting of this caliber is a rarity within the genre.

Tom Felton, best known as Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” film series, stands out like a sore thumb in a much too large role as Clavius’ second in command Lucius. A casting disaster, Felton isn’t able to provide any level of counter-balance to Fiennes on a scene-to-scene basis and can’t elevate the script beyond words on a page.

Though audiences only catch glimpses through much of “Risen,” the film’s final act is almost entirely devoted to Cliff Curtis’ surprising, yet stirring portrayal as Yeshua. The stoic calm Curtis portrays in the world’s most famous religious figure is subtle, yet effective. Casting the New Zealand born actor of Maori descent helps keep the conversation about “Risen” on its actual merits and not about larger diversity issues in film.

Waco native Kevin Reynolds, best known for directing “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “Waterworld,” does a remarkable job of elevating the film visually, especially in close-ups of Fiennes as he tracks down Jesus’ disciples. The choice to shoot the movie in Spain and Malta gives “Risen” vast, picturesque landscapes to increase authenticity.

Reynolds approaches the inherent violence necessary at the beginning of the film – a centurion battle to establish Clavius and the crucifixion itself – with remarkable tact. Opting to minimize the brutality, “Risen” cuts away from each death blow in battle just before it’s struck while implying the inevitable.

This method also makes watching Jesus’ death more tolerable as an audience member. While “Risen” does not come close to the graphic nature of “Passion of the Christ,” it indeed earns its PG-13 rating for violence and disturbing images.

From a cinematic perspective, the only major flaw of “Risen” is its depiction of Jesus’ final moments with the disciples, which comes across rather amateurish. This important moment in Biblical history should have been storyboarded out better by the directorial team in pre-production.

Instead, viewers are left with a poorly lit, cinematically stale ending that undercuts Curtis’ performance in the movie and Yeshua’s importance to the film’s final act.

Affirm Films, a division of Sony Pictures, has found recent financial success in the faith-based genre thanks to films like “When the Game Stands Tall” and “War Room,” helping pave the way for increased budgets and better quality filmmaking. “Risen” represents a continuation of this growing trend and stands as Affirm’s best film released to date.

Reynolds’ film serves as a bridge in the vast cinematic canyon between big budget Hollywood epics that treat Christianity in an overly callous secular way and smaller Christian films valuing message over storytelling.

Certainly not a perfect film, “Risen” represents yet another step forward for an up-and-coming genre and definitely a movie worth checking out over the Lenten season.

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