It’s one of the best-known stories in history: the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. It’s been depicted in countless movies. Yet writer-director Kevin Reynolds has succeeded in presenting the event from an intriguing and unconventional perspective.
In “Risen,” Reynolds treats the great mystery of the Resurrection as a kind of police procedural in which a Roman tribune named Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) functions as a skeptical detective as he tries to unravel the mystery of how the body of the crucified Jesus (here called Yeshua) disappeared from the sealed tomb.
Under orders from Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), he rounds up suspects, Mary Magdalene (María Botto) among them, and gives them the third degree. Confessions are extracted, informants are bribed, bodies are exhumed, doors are kicked in by the Roman equivalent of a SWAT team.
Clavius turns Jerusalem upside down, and yet the mystery only deepens.
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Mary Magdalene warns him, “you look for something you will never find.” A soldier left to guard the tomb who drunkenly falls asleep on the job weeps as he tells of being awakened by a “terrible flash” and finding the tomb emptied.
“Explain it to me,” he begs Clavius.
The investigator’s skepticism turns to bafflement, and when he encounters the risen Yeshua (Cliff Curtis), bafflement turns to wonder.
Reynolds, whose previous pictures include “Waterworld” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” knows his way around epic productions, but there is no grandiosity in his direction of “Risen.” With its sun-seared desert landscapes (shot in Malta and Spain) his Judea has the rough look of a frontier where rebellious Jews battle Roman soldiers, a place that has forged Clavius into a hard-bitten fighter.
Fiennes is superb, portraying a man slowly transformed by events that shake his beliefs about the world and his place in it to their core. Excellent also is Firth, whose Pilate is a tough-minded ruler who perceives the threat that the disappearance of the body and the growing belief among Jerusalem’s subject people in a miraculous return from the dead poses to Roman control of Judea.
Reynolds meshes his modern police-story perspective with traditional biblical elements, from the depiction of Jesus on the cross to his appearance on the shores of the Sea of Galilee before the ecstatic Apostles, in a way that is respectful while skillfully avoiding the kind of sanctimony or religiosity that often characterizes biblical epics. With intelligence and great moviemaking skill, he has created a classic variation on a venerated ancient theme.
☆☆☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis.
Director: Kevin Reynolds.
Running time: 1:48.
Rated: PG-13 for biblical violence, including some disturbing images.