Posts Tagged ‘Peter Firth’

Still hanging around in cinemas is the Coens’ Hail, Caesar!, a movie which gets most of its fun from affectionately spoofing types of movie they just don’t make any more: musicals, westerns, terribly mannered dramas, and Biblical epics, such as the film-within-the-film that supplies its title. The thing is, though, that they do still in fact make films of some of these types, although they frequently struggle to get attention in a crowded marketplace. As a case in point, there’s Kevin Reynolds’ Risen, which came out in the States a few weeks ago and is theoretically out in the UK too, though really struggling to get decent distribution.


The film’s modest budget and creative team of people you’ve either never heard of or whose careers seem to have gone off the boil might lead you to expect something pretty grisly, but as it turns out the charnel stink is mostly limited to events on screen. Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman tribune enduring a far-from-plum posting to Palestine in 33AD – the only place in the Empire where the inhabitants rise up in violent rebellion against the occupying Romans and then sue them for brutality after they get put down. Clavius is jaded but retains his ambitiousness even so, and has managed to make himself pretty much indispensible to local top man Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth).

Pilate orders Clavius to oversee the execution of local mystic who offended the Jewish religious authorities, which he does, without much enthusiasm. He is further tasked with keeping the corpse of said Nazarene spiritual leader under guard, to head off rumours that the man has come back from the dead, as he apparently prophesied would happen.

Well, something goes wrong with the guard detail and the body of the Nazarene mysteriously vanishes, which means that Clavius has a new mission: find whoever is responsible, recover the body, and prevent the dead man’s acolytes from causing any trouble to the Jewish leaders or to Rome…

There’s no sense in beating about the bush here: Risen is another of those new-wave Biblical epics, albeit rather more modest in scope than Noah or Exodus, and its New Testament focus means it’s very hard to shake the suspicion it is gunning for the same keen audience that made The Passion of the Christ such a massive hit in 2004 – indeed, some reports suggest this started off as a semi-sequel to that film.

A lot of people, I suspect, will run a mile rather than watch a film about the Easter story, and it’s true to say that Risen has nothing like the spectacle or scale that made old-style films in this vein like The Robe or Ben-Hur so watchable. Nevertheless, I found this film to have many points of distinct interest, even though I would struggle to call it anything close to essential viewing.

I suppose it says something about the secularisation of western civilisation that a genre which was absolutely mainstream fifty years ago is now perceived is being rather niche: there isn’t anything like the same assumption that everyone is pious and Christian any more. I suspect the shadow of Life of Brian may also have had an effect in terms of making this kind of film a difficult proposition for film-makers and audiences. To its credit, Risen plays the whole story very straight – and to begin with at least – doesn’t go overboard with regard to any message it may be trying to pass along. Indeed, it almost seems to shy away from being too on-the-nose about this – the main man is referred to as ‘Yeshua’ in an attempt to steer clear of the usual associations. Hmmm.

The first half or two thirds of the film are actually a rather engaging political thriller, told from the point of view of someone largely disinterested in Jewish mysticism and (obviously) unaware of the significance of the case he’s working. I think it says something about the post-Roman nature of our own society that we find it so easy to identify with Roman characters in this kind of setting – we instinctively assume we have so much in common with them. I think this fundamentally misunderstands the different ethical system of the Roman Empire, but it’s a very helpful storytelling conceit if nothing else, and Fiennes gives a very good performance as the world-weary tribune. The film’s historical accuracy is a little variable but mostly rather impressive, albeit with one fairly important exception which we’ll come to soon.

However, once Clavius gets done with scene-of-crime work at empty tombs (in the film’s cheesiest moment, what-will-be the Shroud of Turin turns up), interrogating reformed prostitutes and running down disciples, there’s a fairly severe wobble as the film undergoes a profound change of gear. Though Clavius is still on the screen most of the time, he’s pushed into a very secondary role as a witness to the doings of the disciples. His main contribution is to help them evade Roman forces as they travel from Jerusalem to Galilee for another meeting with Yeshua (played, in case you’re wondering, by Cliff Curtis, who is thus probably the first Maori Christ in the movies – Curtis also appears in the Walking Dead spin-off, which is either very appropriate or utterly not, depending on your religious persuasion).

This works very well at injecting a bit of tension and action into the third act – Clavius has to contend with his ruthless aide, Lucius (Tom Felton) – but it does put one of the film’s issues centre stage, namely that it presents early Christianity as being a¬†matter of great significance¬†to the Romans, when it really wasn’t. To be fair, the film suggests there has been a bit of political maneuvering on the part of the Jewish authorities to secure Roman involvement, and – as mentioned – the presence of a Roman character as a point of identification for a general audience is essential.

Even so, it doesn’t help a final act which is primarily just a retelling of part of the book of Acts, with Clavius just hanging around in the background. One wonders why he didn’t get into the Bible himself, given the significance of his role here – he’s virtually the last person Yeshua has a conversation with before his ascension. (I couldn’t help being reminded of the Pythons’ original idea for their own movie on this topic, which dealt with St Brian, an apostle who was always in just the wrong place at the wrong time and thus got left out of all the Gospels.)

To be honest, I felt just a little bit cheated: I’d started watching a film with a bit of grit and thoughtfulness about it, concerned with some fairly novel new angles on this story, and for it to suddenly just turn into a very safe, by-the-numbers piece of Biblical reconstruction was rather a let-down.

Still, the whole thing is well-mounted and well-played, although I wonder just who the ideal audience for it is – if retellings of the Gospels are your thing, you may not like the start, but if you’re not into a sort of cinematic tract, you’ll most likely hate the ending. In the end, this is basically just a conversion narrative – and if conversion narratives are not your thing, none of the other good things about Risen are likely to make it appeal to you much. I thought it was an interesting curiosity which unfortunately didn’t live up to the promise of its opening section.


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