‘Risen’ Fails to Resurrect Faith-Based Cinema (FILM REVIEW)


I couldn’t help paraphrasing the 19th century Mexican president Porfirio Diaz as I pondered Risen after my screening. “Poor Christians,” I thought. “So far from Hollywood. So close to God.” The animosity many in the Christian community (especially the evangelicals) feel towards Hollywood is, at this point, taken as a given. That’s not to say all Christians, or even all evangelicals, harbor ill thoughts towards Hollywood and movies, but the conversation about sinful movies is common enough that it’s getting harder and harder to hear otherwise.

Still, I’ll give the Christian community this: unlike a lot of groups who complain about the way things ought to be, they’ve never shied away from attempting to produce the kinds of things they think should like to be seen. While most faith-based films turn out to be laughably incompetent and outright terrible, I applaud the effort when I see it.

Risen is the latest film designed to pander to a community who often feels left behind by the Hollywood mainstream. It tells the tale of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as depicted in the gospels, through the eyes of a Roman non-believer. It’s an interesting premise, to be certain, and is at the very least competent and not terribly god awful. But neither is it particularly good or interesting. Instead it just sort of is. While “I Am” might be a perfectly good justification for the existence of a burning bush, mere existence doesn’t justify seeing a movie.

Risen tells the story of the Resurrection through Roman tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), assigned by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to first guard the body of the Nazarene Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) as it lay entombed and then to find the body in order to quell an uprising after its disappearance. The investigation leads Clavius to the disciples, and the shocking discovery of a living, breathing Yeshua. He then undergoes a journey to figure out the meaning of what he’s witnessed, and it threatens to change him forever.

It’s in the execution where this admittedly intriguing premise ultimately fails. Writer/Director Kevin Reynolds (Waterworld) proves just competent enough to avoid accusations of amateurism and Risen never quite descends to the level of despair that most faith-based films tend to fall. Overall, however, the film feels lacking in scope; its narrow perspective never quite lends weight to a story that so deserves it.

Never does the script feel completely fleshed out. Rather, it feels as though the film expects us to know the ins and outs of the story ourselves. While it’s true that all of us probably know the story, that doesn’t excuse the slapdash execution and at no point does the film capture the sort of inspirational awe the story should fill its audience with. Instead, it seem perfunctory; it goes through the motions, it hits all the right beats, but it does little else that’s worthy of attention or remembrance.

Believer or no, The Bible offers fantastic starting points for movie ideas. Hell, it offers fantastic stories just for reading. You don’t need to be a believer to find solace in God; you don’t need to have faith to see wisdom in stories. There’s a reason these tales have survived as long as they have, and they’re worth reading on their own merits. Anything worth reading is, of course, worth filming, so I don’t reject the notion of Biblical adaptations outright.

But there’ve been precious few instances of quality Biblical and faith-based movies, especially in recent years. The Passion was great. Last Temptation was incredible. The Ten Commandments is a verifiable classic of cinema. There’s absolutely no reason why a Biblical adaptation needs to be terrible, and yet that seems to be all we get.

Risen might be far from the worst movie of faith I’ve ever seen, but it’s equally far from the greatest. Its laziness is palpable and its corner cutting transparent. It’s a movie that aspires towards epic but lacks the skill to pull it off. While I can’t help but admire the aspirations of Risen, it’s woefully apparent that they far outweigh the ability. As a film, it might be pleasing to the ardent believer, but for most of us it’s simply a waste of time.

Risen is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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