The start of the film is less familiar as Joseph Fiennes’ tribune Clavius stumbled in to a desert tavern. Moments later, with a drink in his hand, he's telling the inn-keeper about the strange events of the last few weeks and we’re transported back to a scene of Clavius’ men on the offensive against a bunch of Jewish rebels lead by Barabbas.
For viewers familiar with the story, this instantly raises some questions. Is this before or after his release on place of Jesus? Is this even the same Barabbas? The next scene – of a debris strewn building – brings further unfamiliarity, although these questions are all sewn up by the end of the scene. Nevertheless the stage is set for a sort of first century Sherlock Holmes novel, there's intrigue, a seemingly impossible incident and a no one else is equipped to work it all out. Spoiler alert: Jesus is back from the dead.
The chief priests are determined to cover it up of course and a weak Pontius Pilate demurs to their increasingly pernickity requests. The problem is though that Clavius and his men can’t find the body to disprove the growing rumours. Their also struggling to track down the disciples, or get any sense out of then when they do. It's nice to see Bartholomew getting something to do for a change, but he can only grin inanely, almost as if he's stoned, and make Clavius think he's an idiot.
To delve further into the plot really would be giving away spoilers, but the filmmakers make one unexpected decision that radically changes the nature and direction of the story. I don't think it works. Nevertheless it's interesting to see a film portray various stories from the gospels which occur after the crucifixion. Traditionally, many of these are omitted by traditional Jesus films, even from those which cover the resurrection. Conversely, many of the Roman-Christian films start after these events have happened.
Here though they get a full airing bringing with them some nice new angles as well and there's a good balance between the time spent focussing on the Romans and the time spent with Jesus’ followers.
The need for the film to appeal to the faith-based market does lead to some interesting decisions. Not unsurprisingly Jesus is given a loincloth on the cross, but bizarrely we also find Clavius and Pilate wearing them in their Roman-style communal bath. Mary Magdalene is still a prostitute despite recent attempts by some to free her from that association and, in the film’s cheesiest moment, Jesus’ burial cloths is shown to bear the same image as the Turin Shroud. When I recently gate-crashed a preview screening of the film for a Catholic audience, even they tittered at that one.
Less amusing however is the film’s failure to avoid various anti-Semitic stereotypes, most troublingly the reference to the Jewish crowd as a “lathered mob” and their jeering and cheering at Jesus’ death. On top of this Caiaphas repeatedly going back to Pilate to prevent a story getting out about a resurrection depict him as sly, paranoid, dishonest and irritating. And sadly, except for Jesus’ followers, there are no ‘good Jews’ to give the films a more balanced perspective.
The film does a lot well though as well. Firstly the visuals are generally very good. Risen was filmed in Malta and Spain and the striking landscapes and interesting architecture provide a great backdrop to the story. Director Kevin Reynolds, of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves fame, introduces some interesting visual ideas as well, such as the gradual change in Clavius’ clothing reflecting the changes he is undergoing on the inside.
There are also a few nice touches with the music such as Hitchcock-esque strings on one occasion when Jesus disappears suddenly – a nice reminder of the inherent strangeness of those post-resurrection stories. And whilst the time Jesus spends on the screen is relatively brief, it's a good performance by Cliff Curtis.
Unfortunately the positive elements are unlikely to add up to enough for Risen to find a wide audience outside the faith-based sector. The premise itself offers scant enough temptation for those with little or no Christian faith and whilst they may be drawn in initially, the direction the film chooses to go is just too much to swallow. It becomes preachy rather than thought-provoking thereby undoing a lot of the good work of the first few scenes. As an outside observer I can see why Clavius believes in his story. I'm just not sure I can believe in it myself.