Modern faith-based films don't have a stellar track record when it comes to quality. But they seem to both serve their intended audience and make money along the way, and, because of that, are given an implicit pass to exist somewhere outside of the expectations placed on traditional films.
That's why "Risen" is such an interesting and even promising departure. It looks and feels like a film that just happens to fit into the faith-based genre instead of a faith-based infomercial that sort of resembles a film — at least at first.
That's all credit to writer/director Kevin Reynolds, whose past films include "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," "Waterworld" and "The Count of Monte Cristo." With "Risen," Reynolds has endeavored to make a more classical biblical epic told in an original way — as a bureaucratic investigation into the resurrection.
Joseph Fiennes' Clavius anchors the story — an ambitious, unsentimental Roman soldier who is helping Pontius Pilate (a funny, exasperated Peter Firth) deal with his Nazarene problem. Clavius is just an agent of his bosses, carrying out tasks with the hopes of eventually making it to Rome, where he hopes to find wealth, power and a good family. We see him go straight from battle to the crucifixion of the man who has caused such a stir in Judea as though he's just checking tasks off a list.
Clavius speeds up with crucifixion by ordering the body punctured, which seems to be the end of it, but of course all goes to hell when Jesus's dead body (they refer to him here as either the Nazarene or Yeshua) goes missing from the tomb, and Clavius is on the hook for tracking it down. The stakes are no less than Clavius's future and Pilate's control.
The film progresses from there much like a police procedural. With a skeptical eye and a green right-hand apprentice to teach ("Harry Potter's" Tom Felton), Clavius rounds up suspects and interested parties to try to find out what happened to the body — the feckless soldiers who were guarding the tomb, an elderly blind lady, Mary Magdalene (Spanish actress Maria Botto), and a hippie dope. There's almost a "Dragnet" wit to things as Clavius questions the eccentrics and zealots brought to tears by the mere thought of the miracle.
And it all works fairly well. Reynolds has not phoned this effort in and avoids the preachy clichés that so many modern faith-based efforts take as canon. Besides keeping a sense of humor about itself, "Risen" looks good too. Filmed in Spain and Malta, the dusty, sun-battered landscapes evoke the ancient setting of this remote outpost.
Fiennes also does a nice job of keeping things grounded, but everything changes when Clavius sees Yeshua (played by New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis) alive and well and hanging out with the Apostles he'd dismissed as quacks. He's not an immediate convert, but this begins his transition from hard-boiled cynic to weepy believer. It's in this third act that "Risen" devolves in both story and artfulness and becomes more cheesy Sunday School commercial than film.
The inevitability of Clavius's transition is perhaps to blame, making the film feel like two pieces that don't quite fit together. He stops questioning things altogether. The swift and complete transformation simply doesn't ring true for the character.
How Joe Friday found his faith is an interesting premise. "Risen" gets halfway there, but it goes into auto-pilot where it matters the most.
What: "Risen." Directed by Kevin Reynolds. A Columbia Pictures release,
Stars (out of four):
With: Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Maria Botto, Cliff Curtis
MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13) for "biblical violence including some disturbing images"
Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes
Playing at: Berkshire Mall Cinema 10 (Lanesborough) and North Adams Movieplex 8