Timing is everything. “Risen,” a dramatization of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, arrives in the throes of the Lenten season, giving devout Christian filmgoers an early glimpse of the narrative they’ll be revisiting in several weeks’ time.
For those who worship at the altar of the Coen brothers, “Risen” also arrives on the heels of “Hail, Caesar!,” an affectionate sendup of the kind of schlocky, self-important biblical epic that has made such a hash of the central and defining mystery of Christian belief.
Cynics expecting the cheesy sanctimony and cheap sentiment that “Hail, Caesar!” lampoons can lay down their blow-darts. “Risen” turns out to be an intriguing, if ultimately frustrating, retelling of the familiar story, here reconfigured as a detective procedural, wherein a skeptical Roman military tribune is sent to investigate the disappearance of Jesus’s body from the tomb. Directed with modest taste and relative restraint by Kevin Reynolds, from a script by Paul Aiello, this biblical thriller for the most part avoids the simplistic storytelling and amateurish production that have plagued so many Bible movies of yore. Conceived less as a textual reenactment than as a speculative reimagining, “Risen” manages to imbue a slightly new perspective — if not deep exegetical meaning — into a story that has survived the interpretive liberties of Mel Gibson, Martin Scorsese and Monty Python, to name just a few.
Rather than focus on the most familiar characters from those retellings, “Risen” is the story of Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), a tough, ambitious Roman soldier who, when the story begins, is serving as an enforcer for Judea’s peevish imperial prefect, Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth). Following Pilate’s order to prevent an uprising inspired by the torture and death of Jesus (played by Cliff Curtis, and called Yeshua in the movie), Clavius embodies the classic qualities of an antihero, bearing no ill will or even interest toward the martyred leader as a revolutionary force, much less the Messiah. Clavius’s interest is in maintaining order so that he might quickly return to Rome and continue to pursue wealth, power and a comfortable old age.
Fiennes — best known at the moment as the white actor who will play Michael Jackson in the upcoming television special “Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon” — is quietly convincing as a cynical warrior who, despite his studied disinterest, is not entirely agnostic. He steals a prayer here and there to the Roman god Mars (while Pilate prays to Minerva for wisdom). Among the most effective scenes of “Risen,” which was filmed in Spain and Malta, are those in which Yeshua’s terrified, impoverished apostles huddle together in bewildered defeat, unwittingly beginning to form a mighty world religion.
For its first two-thirds, “Risen” is animated by a provocative double helix of skepticism and spiritual faith, the latter of which is embodied by Yeshua’s followers, a laid-back band that includes Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto), Simon (Joe Manjon) and a particularly blissed-out Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan). The movie only falters — succumbing to moments of wince-inducing ham-handedness — when it’s time to represent the resurrected Jesus and his reported miracles, and when Reynolds opts for clumsy literalism that relegates profound mysteries to magic tricks. Rather than explore the most radical, challenging substance of Jesus’s ministry, “Risen” is content to wow Clavius — and the audience — with what are staged as supernatural stunts. Viewers already well-versed in the greatest story ever told might find their interest piqued by the filmmakers’ unconventional take. It’s unlikely, however, that “Risen” will preach to anyone outside the choir.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains biblical violence and some disturbing images. 107 minutes.