The story surrounding Jesus Christ has been told in film so often at this point, from major theatrical releases to small productions from religious groups, that it’s easy to assume there aren’t any new ways of tackling the material. The filmmakers behind Risen clearly didn’t think so, though. Here, they’ve taken the period between Christ’s crucifixion and the eventual ascension described in the Bible, and are showing it from the perspective of a Roman tribune ordered to track down the body of Yeshua, a controversial figure within the community. This perspective gives the film, for a time at least, a take that works surprisingly well.
Risen follows Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) as he and his newly-assigned second-in-command Lucius (Tom Felton) work to find the body of Yeshua (Cliff Curtis), sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) with prodding from local religious leaders. The leaders insist that Pilate assign guards to watch the body, in order to prevent any of Yeshua’s followers from snatching the body and claiming that Yeshua’s prophecy of his resurrection had come true. When the body does go missing, Clavius begins his investigation, but is stunned when he comes across Yeshua himself.
The investigative part of the film is Risen at its best. With many of the more familiar Biblical characters relegated to minor appearances, the primary characters in this part of the film are given room to be skeptical of the claims of Yeshua and his followers. This approach also lets the film handle some of the more notable figures from the Bible in a way that’s usually not done. When Clavius needs to find Mary Magdalene, for example, he heads down to the barracks to see which soldiers could recognize her; not all of them can, but it’s pretty close.
Once Clavius encounters Yeshua, though (and that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone attending this film), the film stumbles a little bit. The second half of Risen doesn’t exactly feel like other modern attempts to use film as an evangelizing tool, and it doesn’t try to denounce other views in favor of Christianity. But to anyone familiar with the story of Christ post-resurrection, a lot of the beats in the second half will likely feel far more familiar. The mystery of the first half of the film is lost, and with it anything that’s bound to be largely unknown to most audiences.
Chances are strong that Risen will primarily appeal to audiences of Christians, and that’s fine. To its credit, though, Risen doesn’t follow in the vein of most “inspirational” (read: Christian) films being churned out in the last decade or so. Even with its subject matter, it’s not interested in preaching to the choir so much as telling a story. Even though it doesn’t completely work as a film, it does deserve credit for trying something a little outside of the norm.