See the Greatest Story Ever Told from the perspective of a non-believer.
As Spring peeks around the corner, the portion of the population that identifies as Christian has a special event on their minds: the anniversary of the death and resurrection of Christ. As is typical of this time of year, a new film on the Messiah serves as a reminder of this event. However, the film Risen takes a different approach to an oft-discussed subject and uses the perspective of a non-believer to portray this event.
The film follows the story, not of a Jew, but rather a Roman, specifically a powerful Roman Tribune. Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), as he is called, is an officer of the Roman army at the call of Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), the prefect of Roman province Judea. After defeating a faction of militant Jews, Clavius returns to Pilate's side to hear updates on what's going on in the province. Pilate informs him of the death of a Nazarene named Yeshua ("Jesus" in Hebrew). He explains that he had no choice but to follow through on the request from the high priests of the Jewish temple to execute Yeshua, and so he orders Clavius to do him the favor of breaking the Nazarene's legs, an act that would end the struggle to remain alive when crucified.
The sky turns dark, and the earth shakes as Clavius leaves for the execution location. There, he orders the breaking of the legs of the three men that have been crucified. Jesus' mother, Mary, wails in grief, and Clavius orders his new centurion Lucius (Tom Felton) to shut her up. At the last minute, he changes his mind and says to instead pierce Yeshua's side with a spear after breaking the legs of the others.
As the undertakers begin to lower the bodies of the executed men, two Jews come to Clavius with a document signed by Pilate that approves their taking the body of Yeshua for burial. Clavius allows Nicodemus and Joseph to do so and returns to Pilate's side. The Jewish high priests ask Pilate to guard Yeshua's body to ensure that the his followers do not remove it to claim that he has risen again, as he promised. To please them and quell the possibility of a rebellion in the face of a soon-to-arrive Caesar, Pilate puts Clavius in charge. Clavius and his men close the tomb with a huge stone that is then roped off and sealed and leave two guards in front of it.
The guards are reluctant to stay overnight but have no choice. Clavius does not follow through on his promise to send food for them, and so they spend the night drinking and soon pass out. The next day, the stone is gone, the ropes snapped, the guards gone, and the body of Yeshua missing. Displeased, Pilate sends Clavius on a mission to investigate where the corpse is and who has taken it.
Unlike many faith-based films, Risen uses a different lens -- that of a non-believer -- to view these events, making for a refreshing take. The film is not intensely preachy because of this: The main character himself questions the veracity of the resurrection of Yeshua. As such, viewers are not pressured into a black and white "believe or don't"-type situation, but instead simply see the struggle of someone coming to terms what he's always known versus what he's seeing. This inner conflict shows what all Christians at some point or another face.
To make this complex conflict so believable, though, requires a strong performance, and Joseph Fiennes certainly faces the challenge head on. Because of this, Clavius' transformation is subtle and actually believable. He starts out worshipping the Roman gods and focusing on his professional rise to power in carrying out his mission, a mission that forces him to question his reasons for living and acting the way he does. Fiennes is confused and frightened, but also curious and awestruck. Of course, the film isn't perfect and loses much of its tension at the final act as the narrative evolves into the more familiar, grand story complete with golden rays, swelling music and "awesome" air about it. Nevertheless, Risen finds success in its unique perspective and struggle to understand.
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures.