|Joe Manjón as Bartholomew and Joseph Fiennes as Clavius in 'Risen'|
Kevin Reynolds, he of Waterworld and Red Dawn, brings all the humility and cultural sensitivity for which he is known to the story of Jesus’s forty days on the lam.
On paper, it seems a good idea: a paranoid ruler fearing a religious uprising dispatches his brightest and most ambitious soldier to track down a resurrected ‘messiah’ and potential usurper. Hard political and social reality meets inexplicable spiritual miracle - give that to the Coens and you’ve got gold. Unfortunately, we have a film that some non-US reviewers are likely to dismiss with the phrase, “it will play well in middle America”. Good actors spout terrible lines and the filmmakers never overcome the difficulty of portraying religious satisfaction as anything other than smug and annoying.
Most of the budget is dispatched in the opening half hour as grisly crucifixions follow a bloody sword-and-sandals battle and some valiant thesping from a mostly British cast who wander around locations familiar from Game of Thrones as if that’s where they’d much rather be. Reynolds seems to be going for all the historical accuracy he can muster, but it’s not the lack of nudity, swearing or era-appropriate headgear that undercuts him. It’s skin tone.
Even if the Oscars diversity scandal weren’t playing out in the headlines, Risen would look notably and inexcusably whitewashed. The white-people-playing-Arabs-outcry over Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings seems to have bypassed Reynolds who is presumably trying to make a film that will perhaps “play well in middle America”.
After the ‘don’t switch over to something else because you’re probably watching this on Netflix’-pace of the opening scenes, we have our story laid out by a nervous Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) who charges Joseph Fiennes’ centurion Clavius with the job of finding the body of a disappeared, or maybe…risen, Jesus, known in the film as Yeshua, because, y’know, accuracy.
To help, Pontius gives Clavius an aide in the form of Tom Felton’s Lucius. Yes, that’s Draco Malfoy playing a character called Lucius, which is about the most interesting aspect of an underwritten role in which his brow is rarely un-furrowed.
Maori actor Cliff Curtis does an admirable job as Yeshua, surely one of the trickiest roles to portray on film. Reynolds renders Jesus as a modern day dudebro, gadding about Judea with his band of back-slapping disciples, forever grinning at each and laughing at nothing, presumably in a state of rapture.
Clavius and Lucius search for Yeshua with an army of centurions who act like Blackwater in Iraq - kicking in doors, terrifying families and being their own worst enemy. The film’s one female character, Mary Magdalene - a “woman of the street” - is introduced with a joke about how many centurions have slept with her (pretty much all of them, LOL), given one brief scene where she’s deemed mad and disappears to let the other disciples hang with their main man.
One key scene, in which Yeshua performs a ‘miracle’ to sate the faith of his disciples, depicts a man with a debilitating skin disease who is beaten up, spat on and cast out of a village for stealing food. Yeshua, sitting nearby and laughing about nothing with his disciples notices this, frowns, and ‘cures’ him with that most powerful of remedies, love.
|Noted thesp Joseph Finnes is almost upstaged by the mottling on his horse|
Curing doesn’t mean accepting him as he is, disfigured and wretched, or teaching him to love himself, or showing the villagers the errors of their ways, instead the man is transformed into a person who looks just like Yeshua, with flawless skin, clean robes and a sweet beard.
Judging by the response of the largely Christian audience, Risen contains plenty of in-jokes for those who know their Bible. Even for those who don’t, scenes in which preaching disciples yet to publish their book mutter comedy gold like “that’s good, I might use that again” to break up shots of the Judean desert and Joseph Fiennes’ contemplative frown.
Judging by box office receipts, the Christian film market - like the Christian music industry - is huge, and relies more on repeating known stories and sentiments than artistry to get a return. If the trailer that played before the screening of Risen is anything to go by (a Jennifer Garner-starring family drama entitled Miracles From Heaven), it’s an industry in rude health that can withstand the damning reviews it attracts from non-religious reviewers.
With Risen, Kevin Reynolds has been blessed with a budget that can extend to British actors wanting a working holiday in Spain and Malta, and the hope must have been that their accents would lend gravitas to Paul Aiello’s story. What Reynolds has forgotten or is ignoring is that to break from that faithful demographic requires more than thesping Brits, a butchered story and some Mediterranean countryside. It requires humility and not pushing an Americanised monotheistic vision of how the world should be.