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A resurrection mystery

24 March 2016

Stephen Brown on a movie that plays out as Scandinavian noir


Rosie Collins © 2015 CTMG

Solving a mystery: Joseph Fiennes as Clavius, a Roman military tribune commanded by Pontius Pilate to investigate why and how the tomb of Jesus is empty

Solving a mystery: Joseph Fiennes as Clavius, a Roman military tribune commanded by Pontius Pilate to investigate why and how the tomb of Jesus is emp...

RISEN (Cert.12A), a new film about the resurrection, reminds me of the forensic approach of Frank Morrison’s book Who Moved the Stone? In the present case, Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) plays Clavius, a Roman military tribune commanded by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to investigate why and how the tomb of Jesus is now empty. Factual appraisal, however, turns out to be like soap in the bath, forever slipping out of reach just when you think it’s firmly in your hand.

The filmmakers’ challenge lies in keeping our interest in a well-worn story. The movie’s angle is to make Clavius agnostic. Too many people have seen the Lord for instant dismissal of their claim. The whole thing is very embarrassing for Pilate. He has the Emperor visiting him any day. The last thing he wants is a rabble fervently proclaiming their Messiah. Clavius has his work cut out. The film somewhat resembles one of those Scandinavian detective stories, where the more information the investigator gathers, the less sure he is of what he knows. Ultimately, one has to ask if it would ever be possible to assess the testimonies of various witnesses unless also equipped with the eyes of faith. Cold research alone won’t do it.

What holds the film together is Fiennes’s subtle performance. His face is often a blank canvas — almost — with just enough hints that he is intrigued or touched by what he is being told. His difficulty is reconciling all that he is piecing together with the world he knows. “I have seen Jesus [referred to in the film by the Hebrew name Yeshua] die but that same man is alive again.” The Gospels recount a similar dilemma where disciples initially fail to recognise their Risen Lord on the road to Emmaus, cooking fish on a beach, etc.

One could get very picky about the film’s inaccuracies. Pilate says, “I’ve never seen a death so wished for, even by him. It’s as if he wanted to be sacrificed”, which is in flat contradiction with the Gospels’ reading of Jesus’s mind. As with many other epics, Risen erroneously associates Mary Magdalene with dubious sexual morals, but at least it’s funny. Clavius asks a platoon of soldiers, “Who knows Mary Magdalene?” Many hands go up. The majority of characters are well-rounded — not something you can always say of biblical movies — although Cliff Curtis won’t be everybody’s idea of Yeshua. It’s a hard act to pull off without leaving a sickening scent of piety in the air.

The film doesn’t dwell on the miracles. It judges that these are better spoken about than seen. Only at the end does the film bungle this aspect. With all the technical wizardry now available to filmmakers, Yeshua’s departure is little more than a cheap cosmic conjuring trick. Overall, Risen does a good job of telling the Easter story with cinematic verity, and may even begin rolling that stone of doubt away for some non-believers.

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