A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
"Risen," about a Roman soldier searching for the resurrected Christ in the 40 days following the crucifixion, is an old-fashioned Biblical spectacular with fresh blood in its veins. As directed by Kevin Reynolds ("Waterworld," "Fandango") and co-written by Reynolds and Paul Aiello, you could program it in a triple feature with "The Robe" and "King of Kings." It has battle sequences, CinemaScope images of scrub-dotted plains and hills, a swelling orchestral score by Roque Baños that sometimes evokes the late, great John Barry ("Out of Africa"), white English actors playing Romans, and actors of various nationalities and darker complexions playing Hebrews. The strategy works well until the second half, which resorts to pictorial cliches you associate with kitschy religious art and lets its story devolve into a series of clunky set-pieces.
Joseph Fiennes' Clavius is one of those stalwart leading man types, a morally neutral professional who has a spiritual awakening while doing a dirty job. After overseeing the deaths of several Hebrew prisoners, including the revolutionary Yeshua (Jesus of Nazareth), he finds himself assigned by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to guard the cave where the supposed messiah's remains are being stored. The two exhausted soldiers he assigns to the task get drunk and fall asleep, and the next morning the remains are gone. This is a PR nightmare for the Romans. Throughout the land there's talk of a miraculous return, and although Pilate and his underlings seem properly spooked by the prospect, at first they treat it mainly as a management problem: the emperor is set to visit soon, and when he arrives the territory needs to be firmly under Roman control, not battling insurgents energized by news that Yeshua is still out there.
And so Clavius has to act like a detective, questioning people who knew Yeshua or were in His presence during His final days, in hopes of figuring out what happened to the body. It couldn't be an instance of the Son of God coming back from the dead, after all, because that would be a miracle! During his travels, Clavius hears one witness after another describe Yeshua—who is, of course, played by Cliff Curtis, modern American cinema's all-purpose ethnic—as a benevolent prophet with supernatural powers. And he starts to wonder if he's on the wrong side.
Fiennes' performance sells the transformation. With his attentive stare and subtle reactions—by turns mortified, judgmental and cynically exhausted—he makes Clavius seem more attentive and skeptical than his countrymen. When the tale begins, the character already seems aware that Roman dominance of the region can't be sustained. All this business with the messiah and the cave jump-starts a spiritual crisis that builds within him. Fiennes' expressions are just right. We see the character being rattled by other peoples' astonishment and gradually deciding to give in and join it.