For a while there — OK, for about 10 minutes — I thought Risen was onto something: The Greatest Story Story Ever Told as an episode of a TV crime procedural like C.S.I. or Law and Order. Joseph Fiennes, far from the glory days of Shakespeare in Love, plays Clavius, a fierce Roman militarist tasked to prove that Jesus Christ (known as Yeshua) is really, truly dead and not, in fact, risen. Hadn’t Clavius himself ordered Yeshua, played by the dark-skinned, Maori actor Cliff Curtis, to be speared in the side while on the cross? He did. And that should have been that.
But now, three days after Yeshua’s presumed death, no one can find his remains. That leads Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), instigated by what he calls “a pack of raving Jews,” to order Clavius and his second-in-command, Lucius (Tom Felton), to find that body before Yeshua can be hailed as the messiah. Can’t have that. What Clavius finds, of course, is the risen Yeshua, chatting amiably with his disciples and preaching the good word. All the skepticism in Clavius soon melts away as he experiences a spiritual awakening.
In Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers spoofed a similar character in the role played by George Clooney. But Risen, which had enjoyed some lively sport with scripture and all those ponderous biblical epics Hollywood ground out in the last century, quickly returns to the land of the deadly serious. Kevin Reynolds, best known as a house director for Kevin Costner (Waterworld, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), guides his movie into the usual sound-the-trumpets epiphanies. So Risen joins the swelling ranks of faith-based films that pander to audiences instead of serving them.