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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Risen movie review: when habeas corpus gets weird

Risen yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Initially intriguing detective tale of ancient Rome hops genres into fantasy, with a strange manic-preacher-dream-boy seduction of its pragmatic protagonist.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of “faith-based” movies
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.

yellow light 2.5 stars

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Risen (2016) | directed by Kevin Reynolds
US/Can release: Feb 19 2016
UK/Ire release: Mar 18 2016

MPAA: rated PG-13 for Biblical violence including some disturbing images
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate violence, injury detail)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • RogerBW

    I’m sure the usual people will do the usual thing, but: I think this review hits exactly the right note. Films that are put on general release need to appeal to a wider audience than just the Saved; having a story that a bunch of people believe really, truly happened may get them some extra ticket sales but doesn’t intrinsically make them better films.

  • Bluejay

    *slow clap* MaryAnn, this is *excellent* Christian trolling. :-)

    The dead preacher is — spoiler! — indeed alive, arise from the grave, but not in like, say, the way of a zombie horror movie.

    That’s too bad. There’s certainly some textual basis to play around with a Biblical zombie uprising.

    The whole Law and Order detective angle does sound very clever. A shame they had to subordinate the needs of good storytelling to the requirements of religion.

  • Danielm80

    I always thought Jesus was a vampire, because he keeps talking about blood.

  • RogerBW

    He gave His blood for you. And now he wants it back.

  • Jurgan

    “There are lots of novels, but I can’t think of a single other movie in the mold of Risen,”

    Have you seen Cadfael, where Derek Jacobi is a monk detective in the 12th century? I think you’ve mentioned it before, but I can’t remember.

  • Jurgan

    I thought that was going to be a link to Ezekiel, where the skeletons get up and dance.

  • Bluejay

    Oh yeah, that too!

  • I’m aware of Cadfael. But that’s actually set slightly closer in time to today than it is the era of this movie. :-)

  • Thank you!

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I was thinking of Cadfael. I also thought “The Name of the Rose”, but that’s also medieval, not ancient world.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I love this essay. Well played!

  • tom

    I take it you have no knowledge of the new testament and get all your facts from low rent atheist website yes?

  • RogerBW

    No, only the most expensive atheist websites.

  • What is the “new testament” of which you speak?

  • charmain

    This sounds like exactly the type of movie that I want to see. Since I and most of the people who would want to see this already know the back story, and are excited to see the story shift from Clavius to the preacher, we can appreciate the Law and Order beginning and the religious end. Of course, there are those who spend and enormous amount of their time looking for religious themed material to criticize who won’t appreciate it.

  • Danielm80

    That means the review did exactly what it was supposed to do. It let filmgoers know what sort of audience would enjoy the movie, and what sort of audience would hate it. MaryAnn is not a fan of faith-based movies, as she said above, so she’s not the target audience, but she was open-minded enough to praise some aspects of the film. She didn’t set out to demolish the movie. She was just honest about her personal taste. And now you have enough information to decide for yourself whether the film fits your personal taste.

  • bronxbee

    that would be a great tag line.

  • If someone made a movie in which Superman was a vital side character and his backstory was left out because everyone already knows it, we would rightly call that fan fiction.

    In fact, that’s probably a great way to describe most of “faith-based” cinema: Jesus fan fiction.

  • Jonathan

    Great analysis of the movie! As a pastor, i loved the first part of the movie, but i think your right when you say it broke down due to under developing Jesus. Part of the problem actually has to do with the nerve of the filmmaker failing. He gets to Jesus, and rather being as gritty and raw and honest about Jesus as he was with the first part, he tries not to bother the faithful or unfaithful, the faithful who want Jesus to be nice, and the unfaithful who want him to be tame. And so Clavius follows a tame wizard healer, rather than the God man that left everyone in either enraged, in awe, or both. They should have let Jesus out of the Deity protection program, that would have made the movie far more fun. Of course, the gospels already did this.

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