Sunday, October 23, 2016

DVR Diary: RISEN (2016)

Tensions are high in Judea as occupying Roman armies fight pitched battles against insurgent Zealots while a cult leader is crucified in Jerusalem. Procurator Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) oddly wants a quick end to the spectacle of Yeshua's (Cliff Curtis) expected slow death and sends Centurion Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) to hurry things up. By the time he arrives at Golgotha, having not long before led the troops to victory over the Zealots, Yeshua has been up only a few hours, but appears to have already died. Clavius orders the other condemned men's legs broken so they'll die quicker and he can shut the site down. Without thinking much about it, he acquiesces when Joseph of Arimathea (Antonio Gil) claims Yeshua's body for burial in his own sepulcher. That should end the matter, but the local Jewish authorities warn that since Yeshua predicted his own resurrection, his fugitive disciples may try to steal the body and claim that he rose after all. Clavius assigns two guards to the sealed tomb who promptly get drunk, and somehow the body disappears from the tomb. It becomes Clavius' mission to find the body, or the disciples who might lead him to it, before rumors of Yeshua's return from the dead further inflame a volatile province.

That's the setup for Kevin Reynolds' Christian procedural, written by Reynolds with Paul Aiello. Taking the police-procedural approach to the mystery of mysteries is an ingenious idea, though it's inevitably compromised by a Christian production company's imperative to affirm Yeshua's divinity. There's a specific moment when Risen stops being a procedural, when Clavius possibly prematurely abandons his investigatory skepticism. This is when his detective trail leads to a house where Yeshua, apparently alive, presides at a giddy gathering of his disciples. Clavius is understandably gobsmacked by the site, since he'd last seen Yeshua as a corpse, but there should still be room for skeptical suspense. After all, to this day people still speculate that there may have been a switcheroo somewhere, a lookalike dying in Jesus's place or an imposter passing for the risen Christ. The sight of Yeshua displaying his wounds for a not exactly doubting Thomas might preempt such doubt, especially in a more credulous age, but viewers may have developed enough respect for Clavius's intelligence by this point that they'd want to see him hold out a little longer. Instead, he follows the disciples to the Sea of Galilee after Yeshua pulls a vanishing act, in hope of meeting the living-dead man again in the disciples' old fishing ground.

Until that turning point, Risen is admirable for its unconventional presentation of a sacred story. I especially appreciated how the writers and actors transcend the performance cliches of Bible movies. You don't get the glassy-eyed heavenward gaze that often makes early cinematic Christians look brainwashed rather than converted. Instead, Clavius's first encounter with a disciple is with a rather goofy Bartholemew (Stephen Hagan) who seems to have been driven just a tiny bit crazy by the ecstatic news of Yeshua's return. There's a welcome consistent note of uncertainty among the disciples, since for all that the resurrection was prophesied, it's still hard for them to fathom in all its apocalyptic implications. It's fun to see an exasperated Simon Peter (Stewart Scudamore), probably still chagrined by his misadventure at Gethsemane, nearly go apeshit on Clavius when the Roman, startled awake by the disciple's offer of water, nearly hamstrings the big fisherman with his sword. You get the sense that these guys (and Mary Magdalene [Maria Botto], in her popular guise of former prostitute) are disciples, but not yet saints. As for their faith, Risen (like this year's Ben-Hur) soft-pedals Christianity as some vague philosophy of love, with no doctrinal strings attached that Clavius or the audience can see. That's probably necessary to attract as wide a Christian audience as possible, not to mention agnostics and secularists. I count myself in the latter category but I've always enjoyed Bible movies for their spectacle and have never felt threatened by their explicit or implicit messages. Risen is a perfectly unthreatening film, unless the mere reiteration of the Jesus story offends you. As a Bible movie fan, I appreciate this film's attempt to view familiar events from a fresh vantage point, if not from an actually different perspective.

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