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.