Film Review: Risen image

Film Review: Risen

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In the recent Coen Brothers’ film Hail, Caesar!, which is set on a Hollywood studio lot, George Clooney’s character Baird Whitlock is starring in a Roman epic (also named Hail, Caesar!) along the lines of Ben Hur or Quo Vadis. In the film-within-a-film, a surly Roman tribune begrudgingly comes to believe in Jesus. We see various clips throughout the film of this epic being filmed, most memorably in a scene where two people are watching rushes – unedited footage of the same scene shot over and over. Whitlock is trying to show adequate reverence as his character meets Christ. In the background we hear the director telling Whitlock, “Squint! Squint! Squint at the grandeur!”

Although the Coens’ film is an affectionate portrayal of the studio system, it still skewers the pomposity that characterised many of the biblical epics made in the 1950s. Risen, a film with an eerily similar plot to Whitlock’s “Tale of the Christ”, will no doubt be ruined for the small crossover audience of people who see both films, released only two weeks apart. Hail, Caesar pokes fun at the seriousness and staleness of old biblical films, and it’s difficult not to think of a gurning George Clooney as a Roman tribune uncovers the story of Jesus.

The good news, however, is that Risen is not a terrible film, which is a huge relief for anyone who has watched too many films targeted at the Christian market. It has some of the hallmarks of a stodgy Biblical film, including a soundtrack that sounds generically “Middle Eastern” and the occasional stale self-seriousness that the Coens lampooned so effectively. What makes it stand out from the crowd of religious pictures, however, is the decision to make it a mystery film. The plot follows Joseph Fiennes’ Clavius, a tribune tasked with first making sure that Jesus is dead and buried, then disproving the claims that he’s come back. It’s like an apologetic argument come to life, but by framing the resurrection claims as a detective story, it helps to make sense of why it is important in the first place.

Helpfully, Risen contextualises Jesus’ life and death, opening with scenes of political ferment to show why Christianity was an incendiary and dangerous movement to emerge at that time. We see why the religious leaders and the occupying forces would want to wheel out the body of Jesus to prove that he had died, making it all the more mysterious that they couldn’t do that. It also shows that it was a dangerous atmosphere to be a Christ-follower, making it seem less likely that people would have clung so fervently to it if it was a lie.

Fiennes largely resists squinting at the grandeur, choosing instead to be a humourless soldier who just wants to get this whole part of his job done. As such, he becomes like a proxy for the cynical audience, tiring of Jesus’ weird followers and keen to shut them up. Jerusalem looks tiny and the crucifixion is almost laughably bloodless, but the first half is largely a strong mystery and at its best when asking probing important questions of the audience. If you can persuade anyone who isn’t already sold on the resurrection to go and see Risen then you’re likely to have good discussions about it afterwards; this is undoubtedly the kind of film that will be used as a sermon tool for the next few years.

Unfortunately Risen can’t resist the temptation to sermonise and the film begins to drag once Jesus turns up in a terribly executed reveal. (Spoilers that he’s alive, I guess.) After that, there’s a lot of aimless wandering in the desert while Fiennes tries to make sense of what he has seen. This is when most audiences, especially those few non-Christians who have stumbled into the cinema by accident, will begin to lose interest. We slowly see more of Jesus and once again cinema entirely fails to capture even a shred of how interesting he was. There are a lot of beneficent smiles and far too much soft lighting with very little sense of what made Jesus such a world-changing figure (beyond not staying dead). Many of Risen’s target audience are unlikely to complain at the on-the-nose evangelism, but it does make it far less entertaining as a film.

Towards the end of Hail, Caesar, you see a monologue at the foot of the cross. Although the scene is eventually flubbed and they have to cut, for a moment the crew are transfixed by the speech. The music soars as people in the soundstage are genuinely moved by the religious experience that’s being filmed. This all feeds into that film’s central thesis – that cinema can be transcendent, almost spiritual – but it also serves as a reminder that films about Jesus can actually have real power. Risen is no masterpiece, but such is the power of the story that the film also carries some of that impact. People connect with cinema, far more than most do with sermons, and Risen isn’t a bad way for audiences to engage with one of life’s most important questions; what if it was all true?

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