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'Risen' offers a subtle, effective outside perspective on the resurrection of Jesus Christ

Posted: February 19, 2016 6:01 a.m.
Updated: February 19, 2016 6:01 a.m.
Josh Terry/

Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) and the apostles fish fruitlessly at night on the Sea of Galilee in “Risen."

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"RISEN" — 3 stars — Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth; PG-13 (biblical violence including some disturbing images); in general release

As faith-based films go, "Risen" is one of the better ones. Maybe it's just easier to experience the subject matter in a historic context, but "Risen" feels less heavy-handed than a lot of what the genre presents to audiences.

"Risen" focuses on the spiritual journey of Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), a Roman military tribune and part of the occupying force in Jerusalem during the ministry of Jesus Christ. The story begins in A.D. 33 at the crucifixion, when Clavius — fresh from a battle against Jewish insurgents — is ordered by Pilate (Peter Firth) to confirm the Savior's death. He obeys, delivering Christ's body to Joseph of Arimathea (Antonio Gil), and on the orders Caiaphas (Stephen Greif) and the Sanhedrin, posts guards to ensure that Christ's disciples don't try to steal the body.

The plot begins to move forward after Christ rises from the garden tomb, leaving Pilate and the Sanhedrin in a state of political panic. They initiate a manhunt to find Christ's body, convinced his disciples are trying to further their movement through an elaborate hoax.

The bulk of "Risen" follows Clavius' efforts to spearhead the manhunt with his assistant Lucius (Tom Felton), his investigation of Christ's followers, and eventually his encounter with the Savior himself (played by Cliff Curtis).

Taken as a straight narrative, "Risen" is an interesting outside perspective on a story Christians are already quite familiar with. In a way, it can be seen as a cousin to 1959's "Ben Hur." It's also a bizarre example of art imitating art. While presumably unintentional, "Risen" almost feels like the real-life production of the fictional film at the center of the Coen brothers’ "Hail, Caesar!" which was released earlier this month.

But audience understanding of the story also makes "Risen's" narrative feel a bit too open-ended, without a clear destination in mind. This also leads to a problematic third act, which tacks on a few too many false endings.

The best way to take the film is to see Clavius as a metaphor for anyone who encounters Christianity secondhand. "Risen" is effectively a story of conversion, and we see everything from his outsider perspective. Certain modest liberties are also taken with the source material in order to include Clavius and his perspective.

"Risen" benefits from strong turns from Fiennes and much of his supporting cast, as well as an authentic visual presentation. Director Kevin Reynolds shot "Risen" in Spain, and the backdrops go a long way to helping a comparatively low-budget production.

As you might expect, the scenes depicting Christ are handled with care and respect. But they are also effective in their delicacy, opting for subtlety over broad spectacle. In this way, it's easier to connect to Clavius' challenge as he senses something special about the Savior without his divinity being telegraphed in an obvious fashion.

In total, "Risen" is an interesting take on a familiar story, though as a peripheral narrative, it lacks the direct impact of many Christ-centered stories. It won't be another "Passion of the Christ," but it is a worthy addition to the faith-based genre.

"Risen" is rated PG-13 for biblical violence including some disturbing images; running time: 107 minutes

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