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Why is it that most movies about Jesus are either terribly sacrilegious or terribly corny?  My best guess is the people make the first type have mixed up shock value with artistic value, and the people making the second have never even heard of artistic value.  “Risen,” directed by Kevin Reynolds, is a refreshing change – it’s an artistically sound movie that doesn’t back away from its straightforward Gospel message.

It helps that Reynolds comes at the material (if the title didn’t clue you in, this is a movie about the resurrection of Jesus) from a unique angle. “Risen” stars Joseph Fiennes as a Roman soldier named Clavius who is ordered by Pontius Pilate to find the body of a troublesome Jewish rebel named Yeshua after the chief priests reports it stolen by his disciples. The first half of the film unfolds very much like a first century police procedural.  Clavius interviews the usual suspects, follows up the leads, and isn’t satisfied by the official explanation, which leaves too many loose ends.  As a procedural, it’s well-paced and engaging, populated with people (except for a goofy Bartholomew, who looks more like a deadhead than a disciple) who could believably populate 1st century Israel. I also really appreciated that Yeshua was played by Maori actor Cliff Curtis; it’s nice to see a brown-skinned Jesus.

The second half — after Clavius sees Yeshua and joins his disciples on their journey to Galilee to reunite with their master — is spottier. Having solved the central mystery, the film wants to delve into the deeper mystery — what does it mean that Jesus rose from the dead? What are the implications? And while these questions are certainly more important, they’re just not as dramatic, and as such don’t translate as well to the movie screen. There are some nice things about the second half; Clavius’ struggle to believe and understand what he has seen is handled well by Joseph Fiennes. It’s not overly romanticized or simplified. And I love that the disciples seem nearly as confused and mystified as Clavius; the film makes it clear that following Jesus and having all the answers about Yeshua are two very different things; it’s nice to see that kind of uncertainty in a movie that’s clearly trying to convert its viewers.  But Reynolds seems to struggle to know how to direct more than two or three actors onscreen at once; the disciples are repeatedly acting like a pack of over excited dogs.

I realize that I am the ideal audience for this kind of movie – I already know the story, and it’s close to my heart, so I really just want to see a version of it that doesn’t mess it up too much. That doesn’t seem like that much to ask, and yet “Risen” is the first movie directly about Jesus I’ve really enjoyed. I’d love to see more movies like “Risen,” and definitely fewer like “God’s Not Dead.” There are so many great stories about saints and sinners in church history, almost entirely untapped by filmmakers and dramatists. Maybe Kevin Reynolds is the right person to bring them to the big screen.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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