Right on the heels of Ralph Fiennes' turn in HAIL, CAESAR!, his brother Joseph Fiennes toplines the very type of film at the center of the Coen Brothers' latest. Okay, RISEN isn't quite on the grand scale of BEN-HUR or THE ROBE itself, but it's exactly that sort of Bible-inspired quest for faith, and as such it's right up my alley.
Fiennes is Clavius, a Roman tribune who reports directly to Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth). As we meet Clavius, he's enthusiastically quelling a violent Israelite rebellion. But even before he gets a chance to clean up afterwards, he's called to Pilate's side for a special assignment: Clavius is to see to it that the in-progress crucifixion of an upstart Nazarene (it's quite interesting that they use the historically-accurate pronunciation "Yeshua" against the preferred "Jesus" here, but that doesn't change the fact that everybody's speaking English throughout the rest of the film!) goes without unwanted complications, the better to keep the uneasy peace between the Romans and the Sanhedrin (Stephen Greif as Caiaphas). Most importantly of all, since Jewish religious law prohibits cremation, they need a body to show to the population at large, lest the disciples of Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) pull off their rumored plot to announce that their Messiah has risen from the dead right on schedule.
As RISEN is told from the point of view of Clavius, exactly what happened at the tomb is kept from our eyes, but the tribune finds himself saddled with an impossible task and a looming deadline. Nevertheless, he takes on the manhunt with intense dedication, tracking down not only the disciples ("There are twelve... well, eleven now...") but such potential witness/conspirators as Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto). Clavius is just doing his job and isn't necessarily out to hurt anybody in the process--he's just as interested in how the conflicting evidence he's faced with could play out as anybody (he even secretly offers a prayer to the Hebrew God in hopes of a sign, though his promise to 'destroy temples and hold games in your honor' shows where he's at on his journey).
Clavius finally sees what he can't deny, even if he can't understand it; and he decides to trail the disciples (led by a boisterous Stewart Scudamore as Peter) to Galilee in order to witness one last miracle--making himself a wanted man in the process.
As I suggested above, RISEN (written and directed by Kevin Reynolds, best known for overblown Kevin Costner epics) is a welcome return to the classic Biblical films that sought to provide robust entertainment along with an affirmation of faith not delivered in the form of a sermon. The clinical attention to the gruesome details of crucifixion and bodily disposal may be off-putting to the unprepared viewer, but it fits with the overall attention to historical and cultural accuracy, the avoidance of a simple good guy/bad guy mentality (Pilate wonders aloud if the gods to whom he prays are listening; the rebels sneer that their Messiah has rejected the Romans and is about to destroy them; and Yeshua simply states "There are no enemies here"), and even the well-timed inclusion of humor. RISEN stands as a well-played and satisfying faith-based offering.
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