Risen Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth. Directed by Kevin Reynolds. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.
As a number of people have pointed out on social media, the plot of Risen is remarkably similar to the plot of the fake movie-within-the-movie in the Coen brothers’ recent Hail, Caesar!: Both focus on a fictional Roman official assigned to investigate this mysterious rabble-rouser named Jesus, only to come around to the point of view that the guy may actually be the messiah after all. The movie in Hail, Caesar! is depicted as hokey and overwrought, but its bloated grandeur would have been preferable to the flat lifelessness of Risen, which stars Joseph Fiennes as Roman tribune Clavius, assigned by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to determine what has happened to the body of Jesus (here referred to by his Hebrew name, Yeshua) following its disappearance from the tomb where it was placed after his crucifixion.
Of course, since this is a faith-based movie aimed at a Christian audience, Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) is not a corpse being dragged around by his deranged followers, as Pilate, Clavius and Clavius’ faithful aide Lucius (Tom Felton of the Harry Potter movies) initially assert. Yet director and co-writer Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) makes the first hour into a plodding procedural, following Clavius and Lucius as they roust Yeshua’s known associates in an effort to track down what they believe is a stolen dead body and stave off rumors of a reborn messiah that could lead to open rebellion. Reynolds manages to take the story of Jesus’ resurrection and turn it into CSI: Jerusalem.
As Clavius, Fiennes spends nearly the entire movie with a vaguely pained look on his face, like he’s suffering from mild indigestion. Clavius’ journey from hardened antagonist to true believer is completely unengaging, and Yeshua’s disciples come off as a bunch of grinning doofuses. Yeshua’s early, ominous appearances in Clavius’ dreams depict him more like a horror-movie villain than the prince of peace.
The film’s final act shifts into more overtly religious territory, as Yeshua shows up in person and performs a series of Biblically documented miracles (healing a leper, conjuring up a bunch of fish, etc.). But Curtis’ presence is more creepily serene than inspirational, and rote re-enactments of familiar religious parables are all Reynolds can come up with as outreach to his target audience. Visually, Risen is drab and gray, and even the presence of the messiah is unable to brighten it. Near the end, Pilate proclaims ironically that the world will never hear from Yeshua’s followers again, but if they were as dopey and boring as they’re depicted in this movie, he probably would have been right.