Here’s something we don’t see often on the big screen: a detective story set in the ancient world. There are lots of novels, but I can’t think of a single other movie in the mold of Risen, an initially intriguing mystery tale in which a politically ambitious Roman soldier, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes [Hercules, Running with Scissors], who is terrific here), is set to a policing task by Pilate (Peter Firth: Spooks: The Greater Good, Pearl Harbor), the Roman governor of the province of Judea in the Middle East. It seems that the followers of a local rabble-rousing preacher who was just executed believe that he is some sort of “messiah” and that he will somehow rise from the dead, so Pilate instructs Clavius to put a guard on the preacher’s tomb, lest his followers steal the body and proclaim him arisen in fulfillment of their prophecy. And when Clavius’s inept guards fail at their task and the body does indeed disappear from the tomb, the soldier now has to hunt down the preacher’s followers in the hopes of finding the body and disproving the “prophecy.” The whole situation is, you see, perceived to be politically embarrassing for the local religious authorities and for the Romans, all of whom obviously have no use for the antiestablishment attitude the dead preacher had been spreading.
Director Kevin Reynolds (Tristan & Isolde, The Count of Monte Cristo) — who wrote the screenplay with first-timer Paul Aiello — creates what feels like an authentic historical setting, grounded in gritty realism. And for a long while, this feels like it could be an episode of Law & Order: Judea, and I mean that in the best way. This doesn’t feel like a self-conscious costume drama: it feels like real people going about important business that really matters. There’s an immediacy to how Clavius and his new assistant, a young soldier called Lucius (Tom Felton: Belle, In Secret), conduct their investigation, like examining the tomb, which has been broken into in a way that appears to defy logic, and interrogating witnesses in the city who claim to have seen the dead preacher walking and talking; in good detective-story tradition, there’s even a prostitute witness, Mary Magdalene (María Botto: My Life in Ruins), because, you know, hookers are people who have to be wary and observant on the streets of a bustling city, so they notice things others might not. This may be taking place millennia ago, but it feels pretty pragmatic in a way that is recognizable to us today.
But then it all collapses in the most bizarre way! The dead preacher is — spoiler! — indeed alive, arise from the grave, but not in like, say, the way of a zombie horror movie. (Risen is genre-hopping, but not to that genre.) The title of the film does seem odd at first, and now we see that it’s not only a spoiler for the big reveal but also seems to want us to shift focus away from Clavius and toward the preacher, Yeshua (Cliff Curtis: Colombiana, The Last Airbender). Yet he is a woefully undeveloped character: he has no backstory, for one. We learn nothing about him, beyond the fact that he can apparently do magic, not just making himself undead but also literally vanishing into thin air and, later, curing a man of leprosy for no reason except to show off that he can do such a thing. (If he can heal people, why hasn’t he been doing that all along? Surely there must be many people in this town who could use that kind of help. Is he just a capricious wizard? Who knows!) We are well into the realm of magical fantasy now — which is very strange given the film’s earlier down-to-earth practicality — or maybe this is meant to now be a superhero origin story? But if this Yeshua is a superhero, he’s a fairly lame one. He doesn’t even stick around to bring down the ruling Roman elite in Judea! He’s no Batman, that’s for sure.
Risen is a mess of a movie, and ends on a most unsatisfying note: after investing us in Clavius’s career and hopes for a glorious future in Rome, we’re meant to believe that because he saw a few magic tricks, he will abandon it all, leave his job and his post without warning, and follow Yeshua into the desert on some unspecified mission. (I hope this doesn’t mean there’s going to be a sequel! Risen 2: The Arisening?) It’s annoying that Yeshua is so cardboard, but he’s basically the film’s manic preacher dream boy, so I suppose there’s at least a stereotypical underpinning for that. But for Clavius, who seemed so solid and reasonable a man, to suddenly hare off and become a hippie acolyte of Yeshua without any previous hints of an inclination in this direction? It’s ridiculous.