Joseph Fiennes in “Risen”

1 May

I think the Romans in Passion story films have always colored our vision of that people: tough, competent blokes who get things done, an image promoted by some first-class marketing of course.  Especially if you’re Orthodox, and have spent a good part of several hours over your lifetime in the gilded dark of the evening of Holy Thursday or “Twelve Gospels” (technically the Matins for Good Friday), listening to the several point-of-view and repeated takes on the same narrative, the Romans almost steal the story.  I was rejolted by that realization last night, by the “Seventh Gospel”s display of Latin sticklerism for fairness, and respect for juridical procedure.  This is the Gospel where Jesus is taken out three times by Pilate to display to the crowds, repeating each time his ruling of the Nazarene’s innocence and pleading for his life.  This is also the only Roman female voice in the Gospels too: Pilates’ wife, who warns her husband that she has dreamt terrible things about this man and that he should release him.

Into this historical-narrative of what Marguerite Yourcenar correctly post-prophesied would become a bloody circling tale and horrid “series of frenzies and misconceptions…” comes Risen (2016) by Kevin Reynolds, a film that until well in the later half is wholly focused on the Romans and their practical and existential vexations.  Pilate (Peter Firth) is the one we all know: coming to the end of his service, annoyed by his contentious Judeaen ward of bearded clerics, and by the constant combo of legal fraction and violent rebellion he has to navigate and keep in place, all especially with his boss Caesar’s upcoming arrival for a tour of the province.

Unknown until now comes Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), looking every bit the Roman tribune: appropriate attitude, soldierly, fit and tan. He’s also dreaming of serving Rome, then finishing his military duty and duly retiring to some lovely Horatian farm idyll in Italy, with olives, vineyards, oxen and a wife.  Clavius is a by-the-book man too, but he’s got a slightly different edge about him than the others.  He’s relatively kinder and permissive with his men.  He’s got an immediately sharper eye for what pushes the “natives” buttons — not to be confused for compassion – and senses that there’s something different and even off with the Nazarene.

This is where the emotional perspicacity of the film kind of goes off its tracks and as Clavius starts to become more and more of Christ’s follower, the late parts of the film become filled with Hallmark images of sunrises in the Galilean countryside.

I can control my reaction because the material has its emotional valence for me.  Other times it’s just pissed me off.  But it’s a shame, because it’s a good film with a truly innovative conceit, but as Fiennes’ strong, προβληματισμένο, complicated character starts looking more and more like he’s drinking the Kool Aid – or as one film critic, who I can’t find now, wrote: “…the colonies of bats start sailing around…” the whole thing falls into tatters.  Watch the first two thirds.  Don’t bother with it at all if this stuff is not your style.

Or just enjoy Fiennes’ leather-banded forearms.

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