"Risen," the biblical epic arriving in theaters during Lent to get audiences hyped for Easter, plays as fascinating counter-programming for one of February's other auspicious releases. The film puts a grimily modern lens on the Resurrection story of Jesus, with a Roman tribune (Joseph Fiennes) discovering salvation in Christ.
Directed by Kevin Reynolds, it arrives just a few weeks after the bow of the Coen brothers' classical Hollywood tribute, "Hail, Caesar!," in which George Clooney plays an actor playing a Roman tribune who finds salvation in Christ. "Risen" has an "everything old is new again" feel, harking to the time when sword-and-sandal religious epics ruled the studios, while also freshening up a familiar Bible story with the grit and wry humor of contemporary historical properties.
You're probably already familiar with the Easter story, and that's one of the issues with "Risen" — you know where things are going, so it's hard to sustain patience while the incredulous characters play catch up. Fiennes is tribune Clavius, who answers to scheming Roman bureaucrat Pilate (Peter Firth), a man overly concerned with the optics of his political career.
Clavius and his men carry out the brutal realities of Pilate's word, inured to the violence of crucifixion and disposal of bodies. One victim, whom they call "the Nazarene," just won't die, so they finish the job, and with Pilate's approval, allow his loved ones to give him a proper burial, sealed in a tomb. The Jewish rabbis offer predominantly political reasons for the seal — he claimed he would rise again, so they want to make sure his disciples don't steal the body. Pilate wants to contain any Messiah figures that might threaten his station.
So when the corpse goes missing, Clavius & Co. set off on a process of "CSI: Jesus," tracking down every disciple, friend and follower, unearthing fly-ridden corpses, turning Jerusalem topsy-turvy at Pilate's behest. It's an original and inventive way to illuminate the well-known story, bringing a sense of rotting-flesh reality to this whole resurrection business. It also ensures that this Nazarene was absolutely deader than dead, his reappearance a true magical miracle. This is the case when Clavius meets Yeshua himself — a beatific and groovy Cliff Curtis, and his tribe of merry men.
Because "Risen" doesn't dare push biblical boundaries, the only way in which it feels compelling or fresh is in the way that it rebrands this content. The messages and meaning remain the same, but the style and tone are modified for an audience accustomed to the bloody, dusty visages and sweeping landscapes of something like "Game of Thrones."
"Risen," as written by Reynolds and Paul Aiello, sacrifices the far more interesting political intricacies and machinations to dwell on a touchy-feely representation of Jesus Christ replete with sunrises and moonbeams. The concept of unwavering faith in Yeshua is the driving message throughout "Risen," but in upholding this moral, it fails the cinematic story.
There's no nuance to these characters, who spout vague spiritual truisms and hokey one-liners punctuated with unrelenting grinning and group hugging. "That's why!" exclaims a punchy Bartholomew, as Yeshua embraces a leper, no other explanation needed, or offered. "Risen" is a fascinating cultural artifact, but as a film, it's destined for no glory greater than as an appropriate cable rerun on Easter.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for biblical violence including some disturbing images
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: In general releas
Walsh is a Tribune News Service critic.