The abundance of biblical epics over the decades has left behind a minefield of movie cliches.
The result is that, with the slightest misstep, the most pious and well-intentioned film can explode into unintended farce. The only hope is to devise a brand new strategy, and that’s what we find in “Risen,” a movie that’s different, not only in its point of view but in its presentation of biblical events.
The movie’s whole approach is secular. To be sure, the movie is ultimately a critique of secularism, but it’s a shrewd critique, one that begins by persuading us to root for the Romans against a mob of Jewish insurgents.
After all, the Jews look like a bunch of scruffy, humorless religious fanatics, while the Romans are efficient, well-groomed and ironic. They seem like people who can actually run an empire, and probably should.
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At the head of the small Roman force is the military tribune, Clavius, played by a sturdy-looking Joseph Fiennes. Clavius is an ambitious guy, just putting in his time in some miserable outpost of the empire.
His boss is Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), who has no idea that he has just stepped into history by crucifying “Yeshua,” a Nazarene religious zealot. Clavius arrives at the scene of the crucifixion in its final minutes, and the sight is squalid and horrible – but also, in the most dispiriting possible way, routine.
That would seem to be the end of a very minor chapter in Clavius’s life, but the Jewish high priest Caiaphas (Stephen Greif) shows up, insisting that the Romans guard the tomb.
Caiaphas is worried that Yeshua’s associates might steal the body and proclaim his resurrection, and so Clavius gets the job of sealing the tomb and appointing guards to stand watch.
You pretty much know what happens from there, but how it’s all perceived, by the characters and by the audience, makes “Risen” a different kind of experience.
In every biblical epic of the 1950s, the Romans were effete and had English accents, while the Jews were more or less like the audience. But here, the Romans are like us – modern people, with recognizable world views and life plans, living amid a poverty-ridden, backward and superstitious culture.
Every biblical epic treats Jesus’ disciples as either gentle simpletons or wooden idols, but in “Risen” they are just normal men, from various ages and backgrounds, trying to process the miraculous.
Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan) is like a proto-hippie, freaking out at the delight of it all, while Peter (Stewart Scudamore) is a middle-aged no-nonsense fisherman just trying to keep up with events. And Jesus (Cliff Curtis), instead of speaking like an oracle, is calm, benevolent and baffling.
The difference between “Risen” and other biblical films perhaps can best be described in this way: Here, whenever the miraculous happens, it happens on an otherwise unremarkable day. And so people react as they would – they are transformed, and yet they’re not.
Director Kevin Reynolds, who also co-wrote the script, doesn’t strive to lift audiences up into the sky. He keeps one foot on the ground and lets you experience it as the people must have 2,000 years ago.
Whatever your religious affiliation, you will come away thinking that if all this did actually happen, it probably happened something like this.
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis, Stephen Greif.
Writer-director: Kevin Reynolds.
Running time: 107 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (Biblical violence including some disturbing images).