With Lent upon us and Easter fast approaching, Sony has released “Risen,” a faith-based entry focused on the resurrection and the forty days that followed through the ascension. But this isn’t a mere retelling of the Gospel story. It puts a new spin on the narrative by reconstructing it as a conversion tale involving a Roman soldier who oversees the crucifixion and then is ordered to find Christ’s body after what the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate assume was its theft from the tomb to promote the fiction of a resurrection. In other words, the script by Kevin Reynolds and Paul Aiello is an imaginative expansion of the sort of story told reverentially in “The Robe” some sixty years ago and recently sent up by the Coens in “Hail, Caesar!” As hard as it might be to believe (as skeptics would say of the resurrection itself), the result isn’t terrible—indeed, its very oddness gives it a certain appeal.
Unfortunately, the picture opens with one of its worst sequences—an assault by legionaries led by the tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) against Jewish rebels led by Barabbas (replicating a scene that appeared in the misbegotten 1961 version of “King of Kings”). After killing off Barabbas, Clavius returns to Jerusalem, where cynically effete Pilate (Peter Firth) informs him that, at the insistence of the Jewish high priests, he’s ordered the execution of troublesome Yeshua of Nazareth and instructs the tribune to go to Golgotha and see to it that the would-be messiah has in fact died. Ordering Yeshua put out of his misery, Clavius then prepares to toss the body into a mass grave, but Joseph of Arimathea arrives with permission from Pilate to take it to his family tomb, though the procurator orders Clavius to seal the entrance and post guards to insure that the body won’t be surreptitiously removed. Of course, the precautions don’t prevent its sudden and inexplicable disappearance, so Clavius is assigned to recover it.
The search—in which the tribune is accompanied by his recently-appointed aide, the intense Lucius (Tom Felton)—involves some grisly moments (as when recently-buried corpses are dug up for inspection; but then the crucifixion scene was pretty gruesome as well). More often, though, it’s pretty solemn, though there are moments that are weirdly humorous, as when Clavius asks his soldiers whether any of them know a “woman of the streets” named Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto), and most of them sheepishly raise their hands. Even odder is his interrogation of the disciple Bartholomew, who, as played by an ebullient Stephen Hagan, comes across as a surfer-dude hippie type that might have wandered in from a touring company of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The two bumbling Roman soldiers (Richard Atwill and Andy Gathergood) present at the crucifixion who also fumble guard duty at the tomb even function as a virtual comic relief team.
Things finally result in Clavius finding not only all the disciples but the risen Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) and effectively joining them until the ascension (staged in a rather chintzy manner, this being a modestly-budgeted production), leaving him persuaded of the executed man’s divinity. Except for Simon Peter, played by Stewart Scudamore as a gruff, bearlike fellow, the disciples remain a largely undifferentiated lot, enthusiasts who look on with juvenile glee when Yeshua performs miracles like bringing in a huge load of fish from the Sea of Galilee after a night when the nets remained sadly empty, or curing a leper. But unfortunately the last act also includes a cheap “adventure” sequence in which Clavius helps the disciples escape when they’re trapped by a bunch of Pilate’s soldiers, including the brooding Lucius.
But despite the miscalculations, “Risen” is still far more enjoyable than most of the staid, holier-than-thou Biblically-based pictures released in recent years. While the direction of Reynolds, who seems to have gone into virtual hibernation since the misguided “Tristan + Isolde” of 1996, is efficient enough, its main virtue is a script that arguably more literate than any written for this sort of fare since “The Fall of the Roman Empire” back in 1964. The cast is better than usual as well, though Fiennes is rather one-note and Felton glowers overmuch. For a picture that was clearly made frugally, it’s visually fairly impressive, with imposing locations and some good sets nicely photographed in widescreen by Lorenzo Senatore; Roque Banos’ score mostly avoids the accustomed clichés.
Ultimately, of course, “Risen” is an exercise in piety, one which should be especially pleasing to those who compare themselves to Thomas (and his fictional stand-in Clavius) according to John 20:29. But while hardly a masterpiece, the oblique approach to the Gospel story makes it a more engaging retelling than straight-on sermons to the choir like “Son of God.”