Friday, 2 December 2016

Movie Review: Risen (2016)



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Since I’m talking about yet another religious film, with a biblical story no less, I’d remiss not to mention how I feel my own paradigm has shifted regarding religious cinema. Have I finally seen the light and thrown aside my blasphemous ways and accepted our Lord and Saviour? I just got done giving a one-two punch to good taste and feminism with my last two reviews; I’m still the same asshole I’ve always been. However, since seeing Hacksaw Ridge, I will admit that my expectations when it comes to Christian films has definitely softened a bit, mainly because I now know that it is possible to do it right even in this day and age. Sure, mainstream biblical epics like Exodus: Gods And Kings are just as capable of being garbage as the independent scene, but as long as the potential for good is there, I am willing to be receptive. Hell, that’s one of the big reasons I love Ouija: Origin Of Evil as much as I do: Because of the further potential it could lead to. So, with all that in mind, let’s get started with today’s look into the theological mindset. This is Risen.

The plot: In the wake of the crucifixion of Yeshua (Cliff Curtis), a man whom the Jews claim is the Messiah. Such a proclamation causes unease in the Roman senate, and Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) sends out his Tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) to retrieve Yeshua’s remains after they were reportedly stolen from a cave by his followers. However, the closer Clavius gets to discovering the truth, the more he questions his own beliefs in the wake of what he cannot explain.

The cast is okay, but really distracting in places. Fiennes may be a bit too stoic for a character going through a faith-shattering journey, but he still delivers on the major beats when he needs to; him describing the feeling of crucifixion is quite chilling. Firth shows elements of sophistication in his performance, but it mostly comes across as a giant plate of ham. No joke, at one point near the start, he says the word “Order!” with this mesmerizingly hilarious tone that I instinctively mocked it out loud as I watched the film (not at a cinema, thankfully)… and then he repeated the word with even more bizarre emphasis. I have never come across a film so weirdly imitate sarcasm in real time; bit of a surreal experience. Curtis may get a bit cheesy near the end, but his man-of-few-words routine gives off a lot of humility and grace that, honestly, fits with the fact that he is playing the Son of God. Aside from the various dialect shifts throughout the cast, the only other major highlight is Stewart Scudamore as the apostle Peter, who absolutely knocks it out of the park with a very humanizing and humbled depiction of someone who is mostly remembered for turning his back on the Lord.

I briefly mentioned this back when I talked about the stupefying white-washing in Pan, but I honestly get quite annoyed whenever anyone or anything, fictional or otherwise, depicts Jesus as being white. I just see it as historically dishonest, not to mention representative of how the U.S. has seriously twisted various aspects of Judeo-Christian theology. Naturally, I am already willing to give credit to this film for getting non-white Cliff Curtis to play the key role. However, this film found whole different ways to get weird in terms of nationality in relation to casting. Now, ever since the days of Old Hollywood, posh British accents have been a norm for Roman citizens. This film, by contrast, goes by HBO’s Rome rules, in that any UK accent is allowed. From the Romans to the Jews and everyone in between, it is annoyingly inconsistent in the accents we hear; it feels like cinematic revenge for how Rome once conquered Britain by having their own people conquered by British accents. It genuinely comes across like this was a matter of “these are the only actors we could afford” more than anything else, and budgetary concerns don’t end with the cast. For as much as this film doesn’t shy away from violence, this is a strangely bloodless film in how the action is edited, feeling like this was a neutered M rating situation. And then there’s the effects work, both CGI and practical, which combined with the rather economical production values overall make this look rather tacky and cheap. Director Kevin Reynolds’ best known film is the monumental bomb Waterworld, and this feels like he’s just trying to cover his bases in case this film couldn’t turn in a profit.

But production values aren’t the be-all end-all of a film, as this actually has quite a bit going for it. For starters, it makes good use of the juxtaposition between the Greco-Roman religion and the Judeo-Christian religion. With how the Roman officials refer to their gods, with some being prioritized over others from person-to-person, it provides a nice reversal of the usual depiction of religion (according to non-believers, at least) where the Gods are the playthings of Man. They’re almost like trading cards with how they’re supposedly revered in the dialogue. Hell, Clavius’ first step to enlightenment involves him praying to God in the same way he would have prayed to Mars, asking for favours and requesting absolute proof of his work. On the flip side, the effects depicted of those whom have witnessed and followed Yeshua is a lot more personal and emotional, ranging from serenity to outright mania, but all of it shows something profound has happened to each of them. It’s as partisan as your average Christian film, but it doesn’t out-and-out mock the opposition and, as a way of showing how faith can affect a person, it’s actually quite effective.

The big reason why this film ultimately works, however, is down to a single word: Scepticism. From the verging-on-anachronism forensic methods Clavius initially uses to track down Yeshua to the procedural drama trope of interviewing potential witnesses/suspects, Clavius is depicted as someone who wants to learn the truth, regardless of what it is. In your garden-variety religious drama, the main characters are usually depicted as already knowing everything and it’s up to the rest of the world (read: atheists) to catch up to them; Clavius would usually be framed as the villain as opposed to our main character. This film, much like most rational individuals, understands that it isn’t nearly that easy when it comes to matters of faith and this film’s sceptical point of view utilizes that to make for a much appreciated change of pace. And the best part is that it’s not even just Clavius that goes through his doubts, as Peter, AKA the guy everyone ignores when they claim that an inverted cross is Satanic, admits that he himself had his doubts. This re-frames his place in the story with something a lot more human, and that is why the scepticism is as vital as it is. Through adding a bit of human-ingrained questioning into the mixture, rather than following blind faith, Reynolds et al. have crafted a very human story about finding faith, helped all the better by not feeling the need to openly attack those who don’t find it.

All in all, for as anachronistic and frankly cheap as it gets, this is easily one of the higher watermarks for modern Christian cinema; or, rather, Judeo-Christian cinema. By taking what is a relatively risky move and depicting believers whom actually have some doubts about those beliefs, combined with solid acting where it counts and a well-paced script, we get a film that admits what few other modern religious films will: Belief isn’t such an easy thing to change, or even to maintain, but the potential to do is still there. Maybe it’s because I’ve actively exposed myself to more Christian films this year than usual, but quite frankly, I’m curious to see what comes next. It’s better than Eddie The Eagle, as the emotion here may have its odd moment of cheese (like the ending, which feels pulled right out of impressionable religious children’s television) but it is quite legitimate. However, since this film is unfortunately held back by its own lack of quality standards on a technical basis, it falls short of This Giant Papier Mache Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy, which took even worse production values and turned them into one of the film’s greatest strengths.

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