Film Review: ‘Risen’

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Joseph Fiennes plays a Roman soldier investigating the mystery of Jesus' empty tomb in this literate but creaky New Testament noir.

Whether or not it triggers a craze for divinely inspired detective stories, “Risen” makes a decent case for itself as the “Columbo” of the genre: It’s amiable, creaky and not remotely predicated on the element of surprise. Set in the days after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, this pleasantly plodding New Testament noir follows a Roman soldier who, under orders from Pontius Pilate, sets out to solve the mystery of the missing Messiah — only to realize, long after most viewers will, that he is in fact playing a key role in the Greatest Story Ever Retold. By dint of its unusual time frame and perspective, Kevin Reynolds’ film adopts a lighter, more playful tone than most Hollywood biblical epics, largely steering clear of heavy-handed dramatics and kitschy pageantry as it tells a slow-moving story of spiritual awakening. Still, Sony’s pre-Easter release is unlikely to ascend to the upper echelons of faith-based cinema, culturally or commercially.

Though this is Reynolds’ first film in a decade, the director of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (and the ripe-for-rediscovery 1995 flop “Waterworld”) still knows his way around a period piece, and here he achieves a modest throwback to the grand studio Sunday-school lessons of yesteryear. In line with that tradition, most of the prominent roles in this English-language production are played by white British actors, though perhaps in the wake of the widely criticized “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” some effort has clearly been made to diversify. To that end, the ensemble includes several Spanish performers including Maria Botto as Mary Magdalene, Antonio Gil as Joseph of Arimathea, and Paco Manzanedo as a Roman centurion. And in the boldest stroke of casting, Jesus, or Yeshua, is played by the New Zealand-born Maori actor Cliff Curtis (a veteran of Reynolds’ “Rapa Nui”), making for a darker-skinned and probably more accurate-looking version of the Christ than we’ve typically seen on screen.

In the beginning (around A.D. 33), there is a clumsily shot and edited action sequence in which Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), a high-ranking tribune in the Roman military, calmly slaughters a hostile Jewish fighter named Barabbas. Presumably this is the same Barabbas whose release from prison the Jews recently called for while condemning Yeshua, which just goes to show that God and ahistorically minded screenwriters work in mysterious ways. Arriving in Jerusalem during Passover (nicely re-created on a budget by production designer Stefano Maria Ortolani), Clavius learns that the ever-weary Pilate (Peter Firth), having just ordered Yeshua’s execution so as to placate the Jews, still has a mini-crisis on his hands.

A highly intelligent and resourceful leader as well as a skilled soldier, Clavius is tasked with overseeing the removal of Yeshua’s body, leading to a sequence at Golgotha that offers viewers a slightly morbid primer on post-crucifixion disposal methods. The scene also gives us a brief, solemn glimpse of Yeshua hanging on the cross, plus the key detail that he died after several hours — somewhat unusual, since it often takes days to expire. (Could the timing of his death have had something to do with the earthquake that we saw tearing a CGI gash through a building minutes earlier? Verily.)

With the body entrusted to the Arimathean’s care, Clavius thinks he’s done with Yeshua for good — but no. In an amusing running gag, Pilate summons Clavius again and again, each time with slightly greater urgency, to take care of a situation that keeps finding new ways to spiral out of control. The calculating Jewish leader Caiaphas (Stephen Greif) is convinced that Yeshua’s disciples will try to steal the body and claim his resurrection, and so Clavius goes to secure the tomb with thick ropes and a Roman seal. But no matter: Three days after the crucifixion, the seal is broken, the stone rolled aside and the body nowhere to be found, prompting a severe interrogation of the centurions who were guarding the tomb.

Desperate to find the corpse — or at least a passable replacement — before unrest breaks out, Clavius and his younger aide, Lucius (Tom Felton), begin an extended inquiry into Yeshua’s life. They speak with many who testify to his love, compassion and disinterest in political revolt, including an old blind woman named Miriam (a striking Margaret Jackman) and the apostle Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan), whose laid-back surfer affect briefly threatens to turn the movie into “Dude, Where’s My Christ?” Which isn’t such a bad thing: With the torments of Good Friday a thing of the past, “Risen” is free to marble the investigative proceedings with welcome flashes of humor — not all of it intentional, as in an aborted chase scene that suggests Mary Magdalene may have had the makings of the world’s first parkour artist.

A lame slut-shaming gag proves far less amusing, and it’s unclear whether the film is mocking or indulging anti-Semitic attitudes when Pilate makes a snide remark about “Caiaphas and his pack of raving Jews.” These instances of questionable levity aside, however, the otherwise literate script by Reynolds and Paul Aiello (who is credited with the story) gives Clavius a playful patrician wit that dovetails nicely with his skepticism: “A marvelous recruiting tool,” he mutters sarcastically when Bartholomew waxes poetic about Yeshua’s promise of eternal life. It’s a shrewd line, allowing our antihero to speak for the atheists and agonistics in the audience, and Fiennes never loses sight of Clavius’ steely intelligence even as he brings out subtler dimensions of compassion and self-doubt. (Felton is just OK as the man’s inexperienced aide, though “Harry Potter” fans can amuse themselves by picturing him as Draco Malfoy tagging along with Voldemort’s little brother.)

It’s no spoiler to reveal that Clavius will eventually shed his cynicism and experience his own major spiritual epiphany, a Damascene moment avant la lettre. (Fiennes is basically playing a serious version of George Clooney’s Roman character in “Hail, Caesar!”) From there the film moves into its climactic passage by the Sea of Galilee (handsomely lensed on the white-sand beaches of Spain’s Almeria province), where Yeshua rejoins his 11 disciples — none of whom are particularly well individuated on screen, with the boisterous exception of Stewart Scudamore as Peter. Clavius will soon be unofficially welcomed into their ranks, and his transformation is clearly designed to encourage the viewer toward a similar posture of soul searching and acceptance. Yet believers and nonbelievers alike may well feel that the mystery has been dispelled too quickly, and in a way that devalues the very faith that is the movie’s ostensible foundation. An encounter with Yeshua in the flesh can’t help but lend “Risen” a gentle swell of feeling, but even through this critic’s God-fearing eyes, it’s a reminder that in the movies, at least, seeing is a lot easier than believing.

Film Review: ‘Risen’

Reviewed at AMC Century City 15, Los Angeles, Feb. 16, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 108 MIN.


A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures and LD Entertainment presentation, in association with Affirm Films. Produced by Mickey Liddell, Patrick Aiello, Pete Shilaimon. Executive producers, Robert Huberman, Scott Holroyd. Co-producer, Calle Cruzada.


Directed by Kevin Reynolds. Screenplay, Reynolds, Paul Aiello; story, Aiello. Camera (color, widescreen), Lorenzo Senatore; editor, Steven Mirkovich; music, Roque Banos; production designer, Stefano Maria Ortolani; supervising art director, Saverio Sammali; art directors, Eugenio Ulissi, Ino Bonello (Malta), Gabriel Liste (Spain); set decorator, Alessandra Querzola; costume designers, Onelio Millenotti, Giovanni Casalnuovo; sound (Dolby Digital), Jorge Adrados; supervising sound editor, John Laing; re-recording mixers, Christian T. Cooke, Mark Zsifkovits; special effects supervisor, Stefano Corridori; special effects coordinator (Malta), Kenneth Casser; visual effects supervisor, Rafa Solorzano; visual effects producers, Carolina Pinillos, Aleida Collado, Helen Marti; visual effects, El Ranchito Imagen Digital; assistant director, Javier Chinchilla; casting, John Hubbard, Ros Hubbard; Spanish casting, Camilla-Valentine Isola.


Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Maria Botto, Luis Callejo, Antonio Gill, Richard Atwill, Cliff Curtis.

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  1. lshayden says:

    My husband and I really appreciated the authenticity and Biblical accuracy in Risen. Taking this age old story from the Tribune’s point of view offered us a fresh perspective and kept our interest. I noted the Roman soldiers moving in the tortoise shell formation, which I had just learned about in my Bible study group. The acting was excellent. The pace of the movie was a bit slow in places but then picked up again regaining my attention. This movie is something to be proud of. It does have some graphic scenes which place the viewer in the reality of the times. I really enjoyed this movie and have watched again on Starz on Demand. As an avid moviegoer, I’d give this movie 4.5/5 stars. The .5 slide due to the slower pace issue I mentioned, mainly when the Tribune was questioning the disciples. Well done, Director Reynolds.

  2. Lou says:

    As a 76 year old graphic artist/ Illustrator and a lover of my part of Anglican/catholic ,Christianity, I choose my faith-based films after reading reviews from ALLl sides of the spectrum of religious to religious-intolerant views, coupled with the Trailers that go with the film. I was so proud of this production and glad that I was by myself with my own Bluray disc being bathed in cinematic, widescreen, surround sound awe because I was swept away with crying that I would not have wanted ANYONE to witness sitting next to my macho self in RISEN’s first run which I avoided!…. being convinced that it was going to be a MUST SEE for me, and that would HAVE TO BE in my own home entertainment chair! I could not imagine seeing so many movies as a professional reviewer has to as it would dull my like for most,..much like the reviewer here Mr Chang. He seems to have dulled his need for beautiful cinema because it has become a plodding job… not entertainment anymore!

  3. Clem says:

    Not sure getting borked by God can be considered humble – that Mary gave birth in a manger, then thought her son had gone mad when he was nailed to a cross? did she forget the immaculate conception thing?

  4. Eric says:

    RISEN, does a great job at dispelling the myth that Saul/Paul of Tarsus was an apostle of Jesus Christ.
    After taking part in the death of Bar-abbas (Son of the Father) and the crucifixion/death of Jesus Bar-Jonah (Son of Holy Spirit/Dove),
    A Roman Tribune investigates the disappearance of the Jewish Messiah from the tomb of Joseph (earthly Father of Jesus, turned rich man of Arimathea, turned Apostle candidate to replace Judas – all 3 persons of the Father of Jesus are “just” men, the last even called “Joseph Justus”). Tribune eventually meets up with the RISEN Jesus face-to-face, and even witnesses Jesus perform a couple/few miracles.
    But after the Ascension of Yeshua (witnessed by Tribune), the Apostle Peter Bar-Jonah (Son of the Holy Spirit/Dove), the Rock/Cephas upon whom Jesus would build his church, asks Tribune to join the Disciples/Apostles as “Fishers of Men” i.e. “Kippers/Purifiers of Men”. But was Tribune going to be his “Brother’s Kipper”? Apparantly not. Tribune goes his separate way. We don’t even have reason to believe that Tribune will keep his vow to the Jewish God Yahweh and initiate games in Yahweh’s honor for handing over the Disciples to Tribune.
    So how in the world are we supposed to believe that Saul/Paul of Tarsus, who never met Jesus in the flesh, did not witness the crucifixion, nor resurrection, nor ascension, nor the miracles of Jesus, how are we to believe that Saul/Paul (a type of Tribune) could become leader of the Christian religion and its doctrine and church, completely dominating the direction of the faith? Kidnapping it in some respects from the True Apostles? Keep in mind that Saul/Paul was a Benjamite Pharisee. What was warned of these ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing and their yeast/false teaching with regards to Jesus’ flock? I’ll leave it at that.

  5. Pretty good movie. I appreciated the better than average accuracy of the sets and the understated presentation by the director and the actors. It was just any other brutal human day until this savior guy shows up and recommends we not kill each other. Which is just absurd.

  6. David says:

    The movie Risen makes the Roman soldiers out to be nice people. The Sinaiticus Bible which is the oldest bible there is, clearly ends in Mark 16:8 and ends with Jesus surviving the crucifixion in March of 33AD. The Vatican then added many extra verses to the end of Mark about Jesus rising to heaven 40 days after the crucifixion which is 100% a lie.The entire modern Christian faith is based on these end of Mark scriptures. There never was a Jesus of Nazareth who was a carpenter as there was no Nazareth until 3000 years after his death,. There was a Jesus the Nazorean Tek-tone metal merchant of Nazara and monastic writings show he lived a long time in Somerset England. He died in 73AD in Aude France. The movie Risen is based on 100% fiction as Jesus-Mithra goes into the sun at the Sea of Galilee taken from John 21:11-153 fish Stonehenge was constructed using the triangular number 153 as is the 6000 year old Dog Head( Rev.22:15) where the bible legally ends at Last Mountain Lake Sask.which is the Stairway to Heaven and is also in King David’s Psalm 104 map and manifold code. Jesus wrote many parts of the New Testament in later life. Acts 25:19 shows he was alive in 61 AD.

  7. Sonny Ng says:

    Yes, the dark skinned Yeshua was historically, archeologically and biblically accurate in contrast to the blond hair, blue eyed Hollywood white washing on screen incarnations of the past, which evolved from medieval times as Christianity becomes more prominent and established in the West rather than the Middle East where Jesus originates and most natives at the time are Semitic or Arab in ethnic appearance and culture (despite some strong modern day racist undercurrents of linking Arabs with terrorists and Islam). Israelis today, if you ask them, are an extremely diverse people of many races and ethnic comprises primarily of diaspora Jews (with European Jews being the largest group) who immigrated in waves after the founding of modern Jewish state after WW2. Until the Romans adopted early Christianity (which, led by Peter, was still considered an insignificantJewish sect offshoot that retains many Hebrew traditions and whose worshippers still observe the Sabbath) as a state religion and spread it far and wide (by Paul principally as he translated it from Hebrew to Greek so as to facilitate the Gospels among the Gentiles. So with the exception of the Romans, the vast majority of the Empire’s subjects in the East circa 33 AD were of a darker complexion ethically, from ancient Antioch, Jerusalem and later on Constantinople (present day Istanbul predating Islam). Take some serious early Christian comparative scholar courses (um, not Sunday bible study) to educate yourself and rid one’s ignorance of biblical stereotypings perpetuated by Western media and in particular Hollywood. For instance, the movie’s gross biblical conflation of depicting Mary Madeleine as a repentant prostitute (started by Gregory the Great in the 6th Century as a model for sinners and theologians over the centuries who want to play down her importance as the “apostle to the apostles” in the patriarchal medieval world). Even the Vatican has corrected this apparent misrepresentation. Now, if you said God creates himself in our image and therefore can be portrayed as blond hair, blue eyed, then that would be plausible:)

    • lshayden says:

      Good grief. Dude, how do you sleep at night? Take a chill pill. All you got to do is ask Jesus “Yeshua” into your heart. He will be more than happy to reveal the truth to you as only He can. All man’s doctrines and versions are inaccurate and inadequate as you’ve so explained in great detail. When you want to know about someone, it’s always best to go directly to the source. So just pray and ask him to show you.

  8. Florcy says:

    By “agonistics” I’m sure your meant agnostics.

  9. Brian Ford says:

    The descendants of Isaac & Jacob were Caucasian. The descendants of Ishmael must have mingled with the descendants of Canaan which were black, resulting in a somewhat darker skin. Arabs are darker skinned, Israelites are white. So having a Maori actor portray Jesus is NOT more historically accurate. Death by crucfixion is a slow suffocation. That is why they normally broke the legs of their victims in order to hasten death. Prophecies about Jesus foretold that not a bone of his body would be broken, so the guards wound up piercing his side with a spear. But it was ultimately Heavenly Father who ended it for Jesus when Jesus asked why the Father had forsaken Him and left Him to hang longer and not die as was needed. Jesus acknowledged what the Father was telling Him that He would take Him now, as He proclaimed that he reinquished his spirit to His Father of His own will.

    • Sonny Ng says:

      As hard as it is to grasp the idea, but Yehsua, like all the locals of Judeah depicted in Risen, were primarily of Semitic ethnic origins despite the decades of Hollywood Eurocentricism to the contrary. Sorry but with the exception of the Romans, all of the locals__Jesus, the Disciples and followers, Pharisees__were Mideast Arab looking dark complexities people in the historical and archeological contexts of the time. Most Protestant, Catholics and Orthodox bible scholars would concur. That said, what Jesus looks like is not important as his message and salvation. I am just pointing out Hollywood stereotyping tendencies. The biblical epics of the past, though colorfully gorgeous and grand in pageantry were also simplistic ethnocentric (no surprise here per the vast audience catered), romanticized compared to the gritty and realistic recent blockbusters like the Passion. See my review.

    • jim says:

      “The descendants of Isaac & Jacob were Caucasian” What?


    • robbie says:

      so the descendants of Isaac and Jacob originated from the Caucasus mountains? Really?

  10. ROB says:

    Seeing is easier than believing! So true! The great spoiler for me was that Clavius saw Jesus. The New Testament upholds that only the believers saw Jesus. The later converts had to trust the witness of the believers. I would have had Thomas as the doubter turned witness, and Clavius interact with Thomas to be challenged about the veracity of the resurrection. This would rightly leave “faith” as central, and not “oh, yea, it’s all happening right in front of my eyes”.

    • Joanne says:

      No Rob the New Testament clearly points that Jesus appeared to unbelievers as well. Look at Saul of Tarsus or even Jeusu own brother James. Both saw Jesus AFTER the resurrection and were unbelievers until they saw him.

  11. Patrick says:

    JUSTIN – Correction re “production designer” – Chris Cornwell was not the PD. It was “Stefano Maria Ortolani”.

  12. Still Crazy says:

    I think it’s an xcellent review! I’m sure the film’s not perfect–what is? I’m very excited to see it.

  13. Willy T Ribbs says:

    It’s a movie. I am a devout Christian, & I recognize its just a movie. The Life of Brian was also just a movie.

    Your faith should not come from Hollywood, it should come from within.

    I do intend to see this movie as it looks like a well done movies.

  14. Dean Jackson says:


    The existence of a Roman occupation throughout the Levant circa 30 AD precluded Jewish authorities in Judea and Galilee-Perea openly accepting Jesus as the Messiah. If Jesus was realized to be the Messiah, the Jewish authorities in Judea and Galilee would have played a game of feigned hostility towards Jesus, thereby placating an always watchful Rome that dealt swiftly with even perceived threats to Roman rule. We see then that the Gospels’ narrative of Jewish officialdom hostility towards Jesus’ ministry is behavior one would expect from those officials. Is there, then, within the Gospels themselves evidence of Jewish officialdom’s acceptance and knowledge of Jesus’ claim to the Messiah? In fact, there’s direct evidence.

    When Jesus was in Jerusalem on His first mission there early in His ministry period, the Pharisee named Nicodemus paid Jesus a discreet visit at night informing Jesus that the Temple leaders knew Jesus was sent from God. Nicodemus admits, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with Him.”


  15. Bill B. says:

    I like Fiennes, but God no, I wouldn’t watch a minute of this.

  16. Kathy says:

    It’s interesting that you were upset about the “slut-shaming” incident. As a woman, I was extremely encouraged by how they portrayed Mary Magdalene’s leadership among the disciples – how they listened to her about going to Galilee.

    • elizabethellencarter says:

      I’m with you Kathy. I thought the scene in the barracks was amusing and Mary Magdalene’s character a strong, resourceful one.

  17. 160by2 login says:

    Well, for a religious film nowadays “could be worse” is high praise. I do think “Cop movie about Jesus’ resurrection” is a pretty clever idea, but I’m struggling to think of anywhere dramatically appealing the story could go.

    Well, dramatically appealing and not comically blasphemous.

  18. Don says:

    The name BARABAS was common in Bible days and Scripture does refer to another man by that name who was executed for his political rebellion. I find that the movie is not inaccurate in this.

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