For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but spend this weekend voting with their box-office dollars against the evil, pagan horror film The Witch. Risen picks up where virtually every other film about Jesus ever made typically climaxes: with the martyr’s crucifixion. That alone would qualify it as a potential and badly needed corrective to the revenge-inciting likes of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Only Waterworld writer-director Kevin Reynolds stages his post-resurrection story as a misshapen procedural mystery, an episode of Without a Trace: Jerusalem presented with all the panache of a Trinity Broadcasting Network TV special.
A ropey, tawny Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a dedicated Roman Centurion tasked by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to find the body of the once and future King of Kings. Pilate, concerned that Christ’s zealous followers will remove his body from the tomb and lead everyone to conclude that predictions of his resurrection have come true, sends Clavius to verify its presence, and return it to the public’s eye once the requisite three days have past. Clavius, a career soldier who, it seems, repeatedly turns down Pilate’s offers of wine and women (but still wades his burly naked flesh into his commander’s bath with the slowly extinguishing fire of aging trade), accepts his assignment less because he (like the Roman establishment) is intimidated and enraged by the threat of an order-disrupting messiah and more because he believes dutiful work will eventually bring him the reward of an idyllic life far away from it all. (Gee, think the Prince of Peace will convert the closet recluse?)
Regardless of whether Reynolds and Fiennes are religious or not, they both approach the material, which inevitably tilts toward the devout, with the polite reticence of the latter. Fiennes keeps his performance in stoic first gear even after Clavius abandons his orders and helps the resurrected savior and his band of apostles escape Pilate’s army. And for most of the film, Reynolds conspicuously avoids unseemly displays of divine prestidigitation; when he belatedly yields, he depicts Jesus healing a leper at a physical distance.
Which is to say that the disciples stand from afar, grinning with anticipation at Clavius—who obviously spent all of Christ’s prime healing years thrusting his sword into the shoulders of warring enemies—like kids who’ve already seen this trick and can’t wait to behold a newbie’s reaction. The miracle itself is staged with both participants’ backs to the camera, and only after the leper has walked even further away does he peer over his shoulder with his newly disinfected face. As sadly novel as it is to see a red-state film reign in its homicidal instincts, Risen preaches not to the choir, nor does it seems interested in converting the skeptics.