Imagine a stoic, first century Gil Grissom investigating the reported resurrection of Jesus (here called Yeshua), and you'll get a sense of what this somber, well-meaning biblical yarn is like. Call it CSI: Jerusalem.
Joseph Fiennes stars as a powerful Roman tribune named Clavius, who serves as Pontius Pilate's right-hand man in keeping the peace in the region and putting down any signs of insurrection. Clavius is present at Yeshua's crucifixion (rendered in near-bloodless PG-13 good taste rather than The Passion of the Christ's R-rated gore), and allows the body to be placed in a nearby tomb. Pilate is soon approached by a group of influential Jewish rabbis, who want him to seal the tomb. They fear Yeshua's followers will steal the body and claim he has risen from the dead, just as he claimed he would do after three days. Pilate gives in to their demand, not because he sympathizes with them, but because of his own desire to stamp out any notion that the Messiah has come, which could threaten his position with Rome. Clavius is charged with sealing the tomb and insuring that the body doesn't disappear. Of course, when the seal is found broken, the stone rolled away, and Yeshua's remains nowhere to be found, Pilate isn't happy and orders Clavius to find the body before word spreads and people start claiming that the Messiah has indeed come.
It's at this point that Clavius goes into full Gil Grissom mode and follows the evidence. He searches inside and outside the tomb for clues, and interrogates the guards on duty. They claim they were drunk and held at spear-point by Yeshua's followers, who stole the corpse; however, the evidence doesn't back up their story. Next, Clavius unearths recently buried bodies to find Yeshua, but that effort quickly proves futile. He then goes on to interview Mary Magdalene (María Botto) and Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan), and scours the city to find Yeshua's disciples. And -- spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't read the Bible -- he eventually finds Yeshua very much alive. He sees the nail scars on his wrists and the wound from a spear on his side. There's no doubt that this is the same man he witnessed dead on the cross. But what will Clavius do now that he knows the truth? Will he have Yeshua arrested and killed again, like Pilate wants, or will he become a follower himself?
Risen's final third focuses on Clavius' road to faith, and it is by far the most compelling part of the story. Director Kevin Reynolds, best known for helming the Kevin Costner-starring Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld, tries to heighten the suspense in the procedural aspect of the film, but his attempts are undermined by the fact that we already know the outcome; his efforts to tantalize us with every shred of evidence regarding Yeshua's whereabouts amount to little. It doesn't help that Fiennes' Clavius goes about his investigation with little interest or emotion, and it isn't until he meets Yeshua post-resurrection that the actor begins to shine.
Meanwhile, the script, written by Reynolds and Paul Aiello, doesn't have time for deep introspection or theological debate as it races to the ascension. Risen doesn't question Jesus' divinity, but it also doesn't explore his radical, history-altering claims. Reynolds is content with offering us only a glimpse of the Messiah, and throws in a couple of miracles that come off more as movie magic than something truly miraculous. Fortunately, Cliff Curtis is a magnetic Yeshua. While he is rather ordinary looking, Curtis' depiction of Jesus presents a humble but commanding figure who locks in on you with a peaceful presence and soulful gaze that are irresistible. His is one of the most believable portrayals of Christ in cinema.
The reverent Risen should get credit for offering a fresh take on the greatest story ever told, even if its procedural point-of-view ultimately proves to be not very interesting. What the movie really needs is less Grissom, more Jesus.