RISEN Recalls Narrative Tradition of BEN-HUR and THE ROBE

RISEN released on 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD formats on May 24.

“Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:5, NASB)

The idea of the unnamed Roman centurion’s declaration of belief, upon seeing the supernatural phenomena that followed the death of Jesus, is a compelling one. Both spiritually resonant and narratively romantic, this scripture has inspired a measure of biblical historical fiction and legend spanning from apocryphal (dubious Church tradition has christened him “Saint Longinus”) to contemporary. To most film lovers, though, the most recognizable such work is 1953’s The Robe. The Cinescope epic, which we’ve previously covered for Two Cents, finds its inspiration in the Roman soldiers who cast lots for Jesus’ robe, and envisions the ensuing spiritual journey and conversion of the Roman soldier who won it.

Risen, which sees release through Sony’s evangelically-targeted Affirm Films arm, continues in this tradition by telling the story of Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), a veteran Roman tribune who is charged with overseeing the crucifixion of Jesus, referred to in the film by his Hebrew name Yeshua. Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, at the behest of raving Jewish religious leaders, orders Clavius to seal the tomb and prevent disciples from stealing the body to incite rumors of a resurrection, which could both undermine the Jewish chief priests and mobilize opposition against the Romans.

When the tomb is opened and his guards nowhere to be found, Clavius delves into the mystery with the purpose of disproving that the zealous outlaw has risen from the dead, but instead becomes a witness to Christ’s post-Resurrection appearances.

Risen is notably better than most religiously oriented films, boasting a high quality of production as well as a greater sense of artistry than most, particularly in an age where hacky “Christsploitation” movies have milked evangelical audiences by preaching to the choir rather than offering compelling stories for everyone. Besides Fiennes, the impressive cast boasts Tom Felton (Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy) as Clavius’ rookie trainee Lucius, Peter Firth as Pilate, and the chameleonic Cliff Curtis as Yeshua. With gorgeous production design and the direction of Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, The Count Of Monte Cristo), this concoction bears a compelling and emotive result.

And while many films over the years have portrayed the events surrounding Christ’s crucifixion, usually in direct tellings of the Gospels, I’ve always preferred the ones that approached it from the periphery, like Ben-Hur and The Robe. Risen similarly takes an unconventional angle, placing the crucifixion in the first act, and unfolding as something more along the lines of a Roman police procedural.

As a detective story, the film rings a bit hollow. The audience is already in on the secret, so any attempts at noirish mystery are understandably a bit limp. But these elements do give us insight into Clavius, and as his story they still work, even if we’re waiting for him to catch up.

When that finally happens, the movie turns a big corner. There comes a point where Clavius reaches the answer to his search, and here the scope and direction of the narrative change significantly.

There’s more to say about this development and the film’s last act, but to discuss it meaningfully requires revealing key plot developments that you might want to hold off on knowing.

Wherein I reveal key plot developments to discuss themes. Spoilers in this section.

When Clavius comes face to face with the living Christ — who just as abruptly disappears — he finds not only his answer, but a whole new set of questions. This may represent a make or break point for audiences. As someone who’s already a believer, I found this scene incredibly moving, in a “this made me weep” sort of way. To a skeptic or nonbeliever, who knows? Maybe not so much, but even if framed entirely as fantasy, I think the film still works on narrative level.

The remainder of the story reframes Clavius’ search to a spiritual one, positing him as a turncoat, a tagalong to the apostles, and an observer to the biblical events following the resurrection. A hero’s journey? Well, no, not really. It’s actually a bit on the passive side as Clavius moves further from the center of the story, but that’s also the point. Christ becomes the focus in the film, and this is thematically parallel to the basic Christian philosophy in which, as John the Baptist put it, “He must increase and I must decrease”.

For filmgoers who are unimpressed with schmaltzy and exploitative offerings of the cultural black hole of the “Christian” market, I would readily advocate Risen as a thoughtful and well-crafted film that balances entertainment, artistry, and reverence in a way that’s more akin to the Ben-Hurs and The Robes of yore.

The Package

Risen is available now on Blu-ray, Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.

I had intended to review the Blu-ray, but there was a little mixup with the distributor and I ended up with a DVD screener instead. So I won’t be providing my usual rundown or screenshots, but here’s what’s on the DVD.

Special Features and Extras

Feature Commentary with Patrick and Paul Aiello
 Brothers Patrick and Paul served as producer and co-writer, respectively.

The Mystery Of The Resurrection: Making Risen (11:15)
 Cast and crew comment on the film’s story, the idea of starting with the Resurrection, Fiennes’ affection for the script, the 11 disciples as characters rather than cardboard cutouts, and the direction of Kevin Reynolds.

Creating AD Jerusalem (9:30)
 Featurette centering mainly on the work of production designer Stefano Maria Ortolani

Script To Screen (3:57)

Previews (15:02)
 An Affirm Films reel and trailers for Miracles From Heaven, War Room, Heaven Is For Real, When The Game Stands Tall, and The Remaining. These previews also play on the disc’s startup.

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
 Risen — [4K Blu-ray] | [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]

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