It is pure coincidence that I watched Kevin Reynolds’ Risen right after finishing Andrei Tarkovsky’s body of work, but Tarkovsky’s thematic focuses and motifs have really colored my reading of the 2016 film. It didn’t influence my overall opinion of Risen, but it does provide some interesting context about why I think this film succeeds when it succeeds and fails when it fails.
The story follows Joseph Fiennes’ Clavius, a Roman Tribune, in Judea at the time of Christ. After putting down a small rebel faction led by Barrabas, he returns to Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) who gives him a new mission. The Jewish messianic figure, Yeshua (Cliff Curtis), has been crucified. Clavius is to go to the place of skulls and end the man’s suffering to bring an end to the riotous Passover that just swept over Jerusalem. Clavius is a cynic and materialist. His objective in life is to acquire power and wealth to eventually see a day without death, as he puts it to Pilate. When he arrives at the crucifixion, his men are moved by the death of Yeshua, but Clavius is not. It’s another task to be had, and he’s perfectly willing to hand off the body to Joseph of Arimathea since it means that the task is done.
That’s not the end of the story, though. The Jewish authorities come to Pilate and demand guards at Yeshua’s tomb to prevent the disciples from stealing the body and claiming him to be risen after three days, as Yeshua had prophesized. Clavius puts two men on the tomb and goes home to the garrison. The next day, the guards are gone, the tomb looks like it has burst open, and the huge stone cover is a dozen feet from the entrance while the body is yet to be found.
What follows is Risen at its best. It’s an investigation into the impossible by a materialist determined to find the truth. He needs to find Yeshua’s body to help put down the new cult, especially in the face of the Roman Emperor’s impending arrival. And yet, the evidence he’s hearing from witness testimony doesn’t make sense. There’s the blind woman who insists she heard Yeshua’s voice days after his death. There are the two guards who ran to the Jewish authorities afterwards out of fear of their Roman masters, telling obviously inconsistent tales of Yeshua’s disciples overcoming them in the night. There’s the apostle Bartholemew and the woman Mary Magdalene who look at Clavius with the eyes of zealots completely of the belief that Yeshua has returned.
Why I think of Tarkovsky in context with Risen is this section, especially Nostalghia. Andrei was a cynic with nothing to believe, much like Clavius. Domenico’s faith is similar to the zealous faith of Magdalene and Bartholemew. These demonstrations of faith in the face of no solid evidence, pushing Clavius past his cynicism, and it’s strongly compelling.
And then…Clavius witnesses a miracle himself. The moment itself is strong, and I think it would have worked better as the end of his actual story. Instead it’s the midpoint, and Clavius ends up joining up with the apostles on a trip to Galilee. It’s not that this journey is bad, but it is far less interesting and compelling than what came before. What’s more interesting to watch? A man finding faith in something he can’t see but can’t deny? Or a man finding faith while witnessing actual miracles? To bring up Tarkovsky again, the journeys of his characters were compelling largely because they were about men finding faith in a world of Silence, needing to find meaning in a world where materialism didn’t do enough to give their lives purpose. Actually witnessing miracles, like world peace breaking out at the completion of Andrei’s task, just wouldn’t be as interesting.
Clavius becoming witness to the apostles’ journey also muddles the narrative focus of the film. There’s a sudden influx of new characters, mostly Simon Peter, who help try to provide answers and context around the open questions left by Yeshua’s resurrection. None of this is really bad, and the quest for further illumination isn’t completely uncompelling, but it is less interesting than what came before.
A different tact, I think, that would have kept the film from declining in quality in its second half would be to have Tom Felton’s character, Lucius, the new second in command for Clavius, become the main character. Assume Clavius has reached his own faith, and Lucius, in pursuing Clavius towards Galilee, Lucius would question how his materialist superior officer become a zealot. Lucius could go through a similar journey towards faith without direct evidence. Most people have faith without direct evidence, and the revelation of evidence for a character ends up less compelling to audiences because it’s no longer relatable.
I ended up mixed on the film overall after the really compelling first half that I kind of loved. There’s an interesting story in the first half and a far less interesting journey in the second. Well produced with a strong sense of making the most of real world locations and fairly well acted, Risen could have been more interesting than it ends up being.