I’ve noted before that I like to watch Jesus films during Lent. Two years ago, I watched Son of God in the theatre during Lent and was very disappointed, as I have been disappointed in virtually every religious film I have watched in the past two years (and I have watched far too many). Indeed, these religious films are among the worst films I have watched this century. And, based on the trailer, you can be sure that if I watched God’s Not Dead 2 (I have no intention of doing so, after making the mistake of watching the original), it would be right down there with the worst of them.
But the Jesus film I watched at the theatre this year was actually quite refreshing. It’s called Risen, which will give you a fair idea of what it’s about, and in some countries (i.e. the U.S.), it is doing incredibly well at the box office. But the reviews have been mediocre at best, so I went in with appropriately low expectations.
Risen, which is directed (and co-written) by Kevin Reynolds, starts where most Jesus films end: at the crucifixion. Pilate (played very nicely by Peter Firth) assigns his closest aide, a tribune by the name of Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), to make sure that order is maintained after Jesus’ crucifixion and the body appropriately buried (with guards to prevent an inconvenient theft of the body by the madman’s followers). Lucius (Tom Felton), a young centurion, is assigned to assist Clavius.
Clavius arrives at the site of the crucifixion just after Jesus dies. He is moved by the women in the crowd and allows Joseph of Arimathea to look after Jesus’ burial (with guards). Horror of horrors, Jesus’ body disappears anyway, sending Clavius and Lucius on a unique kind of manhunt which will take about half of the film. I trust I am not giving you any real spoilers when I say that Clavius does eventually find Jesus and, wonder of wonders, he seems very much alive (before suddenly disappearing again). Not knowing what to make of this, Clavius decides to follow the eleven apostles as they go to look for Jesus in Galilee. Lucius is not impressed and squeals to Pilate, who is even less impressed. Another manhunt ensues. The ending of Risen will surprise no one who is familiar with the gospel stories (which film critics apparently are not, because many of them say the story just follows the end of the Gospel of Matthew; not true - it is a mix that features as much of John as Matthew).
Perhaps because I know the story so well, I certainly did not find Risen’s plot riveting. The best I can say about it is that I was mildly entertained throughout, that some scenes were inspiring and that there’s something to be said for understatement when you’re making a film about Jesus. The refreshing elements I referred to earlier had less to do with the story than with the way the film was made. Here are the highlights: 1) Cliff Curtis (of Maori descent) is the most realistic Jesus (called Yeshua in Risen) I have ever seen; 2) Fiennes delivers a very sympathetic and nuanced performance as the protagonist; 3) despite what critics say, the resurrection of Jesus is handled not only with sensitivity but without sensationalism (critics say it’s just preaching to the choir and won’t convert anyone, but I didn’t think that preaching was really its goal at all, which is a very good thing).
So I walked out of the theatre pleasantly surprised by how little I disliked Risen. This is no great Jesus film, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of either. A solid ***. My mug is up.