Risen 2016: See it for Terrific Fiennes, Affecting Jesus and Unique Premise
In "Risen" 2016 Joseph Fiennes gives a terrific performance as Clavius, a Roman tribune tasked by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) with investigating the disappearance of the corpse of a crucified Jewish carpenter whose name I think you probably know. Fiennes is so good that if this had been a better-produced film he would have been nominated for an Academy Award.
I like high production values in a film about the ancient world. You won't find that here. No breathtaking views of a recreated first century Jerusalem; no magnificent desert sunsets, no surging crowds.
What you get, instead, is Joseph Fiennes' supremely handsome face, grimacing in the heat of battle, gazing snake-like as he plays power games with Pontius Pilate as they share a tiled bath, and, eventually, awestruck into transcendence. The scene where Clavius confronts the truth of Jesus is one of the best scenes I've ever seen in any movie. It was so stunning that while I was watching the movie I was actively wishing I could "rewind" and watch it all again.
The film opens with Clavius fighting Jewish insurgents. Again, because of low budget, the film can't show you rank upon rank of infantry. What it does show you, instead, is the close-up and personal aspect of combat. You've got a handful of Roman soldiers, full armor, obviously rigorously and expertly trained in the art of war, working out their carefully routinized tactics against a passionate but ragtag group of Jews fighting in fevered frenzy for their homeland and their God. The Jews score a few points. The Romans are better equipped and trained, and they ultimately triumph. Clavius has noted exactly which Jew killed his friend, and he is sure to kill that Jew with his own hands.
"Risen" handles Jesus' crucifixion in a way unlike any I've seen before. Jesus was crucified on Golgotha, place of the skull, meant to be a hill. Usually filmmakers and painters capitalize on the dramatic aspects of hilltops in order to highlight the crucifixion. "Risen" does not.
In this film Jesus appears to be crucified in a dirty little alley, at almost eye level. Clavius uses a terse soldier's purely manual sign language to communicate, above the screams and wails of witnesses, to a foot soldier to break the crucified's legs in order to put an end to their suffering. This sign language is very affecting. It lets you know that these Romans have crucified so many victims that they have developed a code. Clavius notices that Jesus' mother is in agony as she watches her son suffer. He decides that piercing this victim's side will be the more compassionate route. As Jesus is pierced, Clavius looks up at Jesus' face. Jesus' face makes an impression on him. That impression will prove important later.
Romans crucified thousands of victims. That being the case, they would have been able to erect and dismantle crosses quickly and efficiently. That's exactly what happens in "Risen." This is a sort of Ikea crucifixion. As soon as the condemned breathe their last, Romans scurry to dismantle the pre-fab cross into its constituent, reusable parts. They've done this so many times, they don't have to read the printed directions in five languages. Then they unceremoniously dump the corpses into a common grave, and cover them over, shallowly, with lime. Flies buzz loudly.
Joseph of Arimathea (Antonio Gil) approaches and begs for Jesus' body, that he might provide it with a decent burial.
After Jesus' resurrection, Clavius interrogates many in an attempt to discover the truth. Clavius begins in the tomb, where he sees Jesus' burial shroud imprinted with what we now know as the image of the shroud of Turin. Clavius goes on to speak with Jesus' followers. His investigation changes his life forever.
A protest: the film depicts Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) as a prostitute. She was not. In fact she was a woman of means who used her money to underwrite Jesus' ministry. She was also the apostle to the apostles. She was the first to share the good news, telling others of Jesus' resurrection.
A complaint: Fiennes has a shallow wound on his lip. The scab would have healed much quicker in real life than it does in the film. Also the scab moves to the left as it heals which is a tad distracting.
I wish "Risen" had had a tighter script. There are scenes that just beg to be rewritten. Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan), a follower of Jesus, says he would willingly be crucified for Jesus, and that followers of Jesus are "everywhere." These are beautiful sentiments, but the script in this scene really needed a couple of more rewrites. Mary Magdalene is given nonsense lines, and her scene is merely annoying for this reason, although Botto does her best with the part.
Cliff Curtis, a Maori actor, is terrific as Jesus. He's warm, affecting, offering a sense of depth and complexity, and, blessedly, not the picture perfect pretty boy of too many films. Max Von Sydow has long been my favorite cinematic Jesus, but Curtis is an excellent runner up.
"Risen" isn't the best Biblical epic I've ever seen, but Joseph Fiennes really couldn't be better in it. I look forward to seeing the film again to savor his performance.