Like any good evangelical tale, Risen begins with a vision of a transformed man, and then proceeds to tell the story of how he made his transformation. The man in question is named Clavius (Joseph Fiennes). He’s dirty and haggard, wandering around the ancient Judean desert until he comes upon a lonely inn. The innkeeper recognizes the Clavius’ ring as that of a Roman tribune. So what, exactly, brought a high-ranking member of the imperial Roman bureaucracy to the middle of nowhere?
The short answer is Jesus (here known as Yeshua, the original Hebrew version of his name). Upon returning to Jerusalem after some battles with Jewish insurgents, Clavius is instructed by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to oversee the last hours of a crucifixion. So begins a sort of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead riff—the aftermath of the Passion as seen by people who don’t know what’s going on. Clavius and his aide Lucius (Tom Felton) are hit by a firmament-tearing earthquake on their way to Golgotha, for instance, but don’t think much of it. When they arrive at the execution site, Clavius is the one who orders Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) to be stabbed in the side with a spear. Later, he is instructed by Pilate to seal the tomb, to prevent Yeshua’s followers from stealing his body and claiming resurrection. Despite their best efforts, of course, the tomb is broken anyway, and Yeshua’s body vanishes. Clavius thus embarks on a bit of a CSI: Ancient Jerusalem investigation, examining the crime scene and interviewing witnesses to figure out what’s going on. Despite Clavius’ best attempts at a logical explanation, his search eventually leads him to a risen Yeshua, and he must learn to reconcile the contradictory things he has seen. Those interesting story forms are then discarded in service of a fly-on-the-wall situation. Aside from one significant life-saving action, Clavius does little but observe Yeshua’s disciples on their journey to follow their risen leader.
Risen is more entertaining than Bible-adjacent stories are usually allowed to be. The action sequences, such as Clavius’ opening battle with Jewish rebels, are visceral on a near-Game of Thrones level. Soldiers get stabbed in the crotch and everyone’s covered in dirt. The movie is also surprisingly funny. Pilate’s exasperation at pushy Jewish high priests, Lucius’ struggle to adapt to dirty work, and Clavius’ prickly relationship with Simon Peter (Stewart Scudamore) all throw dashes of levity into the serious proceedings.
Ultimately, however, the movie fails to answer its own central question. It’s unclear whether Clavius quit his prestigious position because of the crazy supernatural events he witnessed, or because he was legitimately moved by Yeshua’s message of forgiveness and peace. And what was the use of following this guy’s journey, anyway, if he just ended up in the desert after all? B-