Movie Review: “Risen”

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More period accurate than Biblically Correct, “Risen” is a moving, engrossing and yes, entertaining account of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, “Yeshua,” as he was called, back in the day.

Director and co-writer Kevin Reynolds and a solid, accomplished cast deliver an unblinking look at the gruesome violence of mass crucifixions,  a fascinating investigation by a Roman Tribune (Joseph Fiennes) into the missing body of this latest “Messiah” and an uplifting, almost lighthearted take on the disciples — the First Believers, who are the only ones clued in to the dead man’s whereabouts.

Clavius is a cynical, battle hardened officer, tasked with the bloody work of tamping down every fresh insurrection popping up in Roman Palestine.

His boss is the self-serving, corrupt political hack Pilate, given a testy world-weariness by Peter Firth. Pilate is expecting trouble, warning Clavius of the coming execution and the factions braying for it.

“Never seen a death so wished-for,” he says, “even by Him.”

Clavius does his duty, even has a centurion hasten the crucified man’s end. He might be haunted by the last look the Jew gives him from the cross, but in death he is nothing but a corpse — eyes still open, mouth contorted in agony, blood everywhere.

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Clavius allows Yeshua to be removed to a proper burial, and following orders, has the tomb guarded. But centurions have a taste for drink, and next thing he knows, the body’s gone, “Caiphus and his pack of raving Jews” are nagging Pilate and Clavius has to mount a search.

Fiennes (“Shakespeare in Love”) morphs into U.S. Marshal Tommy Lee Jones, ordering a house-to-house, grave to grave search for the missing corpse. Tom Felton is his high-born new lieutenant, learning to offer “no quarter” to the civilians under their thumb.

They question Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) and work the case — cop show style — making their way to the Apostles, who are in hiding. And it’s when the investigation finds Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan), that the movie turns and the tone lightens.

This future Saint Bartholomew is a surfer without a swell. He is tickled to be found, elated to be questioned and The Original Hippy in his credo.

“Our only weapon is LOVE,” he gushes. Yeshua isn’t a corpse. He’s out and about. And in case Clavius, who supervised the man’s death hasn’t figured it out, “This changes EVERYthing.”

Director Kevin Reynolds has been Kevin Costner’s go-to guy over the years (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “Hatfields & McCoys”). What’s he’s cooked up here is a modern version of “The Robe,” a Richard Burton sword and sandals, sand and Savior epic from the 1950s.

Meeting the other disciples and then Yeshua himself, played with an infectious grin and agenda-with-a-light-touch by New Zealander Cliff Curtis (“Live Free or Die Hard”, “Fear the Walking Dead”) will change Clavius.

It’s not a movie that hangs on surprises. But even though we know where all this is going long before it gets there, the story has enough absorbing twists and the performances are so compassionate that “Risen” draws us in.

Faith-based films, even the ones with the budget to recreate the Biblical Middle East, rarely lure actors as accomplished as these. Fiennes, Firth (“The Hunt for Red October”), Curtis, Harry Potter’s nemesis Felton and others, such as a twinkly Stewart Scudamore, as the fisherman Peter, lift “Risen” into the first rank of films about “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

Yes, it’s aimed at believers. But Reynolds & Co. avoid the traps of Mel Gibson’s movie and many others by making these times horrifically real, but  these Biblical figures and what they were about compelling in their kindness, soft-selling their message so sweetly that even a Roman with blood on his hands will question his Empire, his religion and his way of living before all is said and done.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Biblical violence including some disturbing images

Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Cliff Curtis, Peter Firth, Maria Botto, Tom Felton, Stewart Scudamore

Credits: Directed by Kevin Reynolds, script by Paul Aielo and Kevin Reynolds. A Sony/Columbia/Affirm release.

Running time: 1:4y

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