Easter special double reviews: RISEN & The Case for Christ – rental picks for Holy Week (or any week)

I’ve been meaning to write a review of Risen since I saw it a little over a month ago. Then I saw The Case for Christ a couple of days ago and thought they’d make a perfect Easter double reviews since they involve the quest of two men (centuries apart) attempting to disprove Christ’s resurrection and divinity.

The greatest story ever told has certainly been been told countless times in Hollywood, yet somehow Risen managed to bring something unique to the table. Told from the perspective of a skeptic, a Roman Centurion no less, tasked to find the missing body of Jesus Christ in the weeks following His crucifixion. Joseph Fiennes portrayed Clavius, the stoic Roman soldier with soulful gaze and rather reserved demeanor. He’s not all brute force like what we often see in films depicting such characters, more of a thinking man who’s ambitious yet world weary.

The film primarily focuses on Clavius’ investigation of the case, which includes interrogating some of Jesus’ followers and the Roman guards tasked to watch. It doesn’t take long for him to realize there’s more to this mystery of a missing dead body and he’s more affected by it than he cares to admit. The transformation of his character from an ambitious Roman (was there any other kind?) to one who’s thirsty for the truth is palpable. “Your ambition is noticed,” his boss Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) noted, and he later repeated that same sentiment to his aide (Tom Felton). Firth was kinda chewing the scenery as Pilate, but in a good way as I like his acting style, while I’m glad Felton didn’t portray another run-of-the-mill villain.

Fiennes is a fine actor and his sensitive, nuanced portrayal of Clavius is intriguing to watch. ‘I cannot reconcile all this with the world I know,’ he remarked at a pivotal moment in the film. It’s one of many memorable moments here that felt earnest, as nobody liked being preached to at the movies. Another great casting here is Cliff Curtis as Christ. Not only did the Maori actor looks ethnically accurate for the role, he also portrayed the Messiah with gravitas and playful sweetness in equal measure. If I have one quibble for this film, I think the acting of some of the disciples, most notably Bartholomew, is a bit over the top.

Overall though, Risen is a pretty riveting film from director Kevin Reynolds (Tristan + Isolde, The Count of Monte Cristo). No hammy acting or dogmatic bluntness, thanks to Fiennes’ layered performance as a conflicted man. The film was also beautifully shot in Malta, with gorgeous cinematography, score and set pieces.

Unlike The Passion of the Christ, the film isn’t nearly as graphic or intense in its violence depiction, certainly not as gruesome as most PG-13 films or anything on TV these days. I have to say that I find many faith-based films to be corny with subpar acting. So it’s refreshing to find this is not one of them and the high production values helps, too. Definitely one I highly recommend for believers and non-believers alike.

SPOILER ALERT: I also love the way they did the ending. Did Clavius converted to Christianity? Or did the investigation led him to a crossroad where he simply couldn’t turn back to his old Roman ways? Whether or not he becomes a believer in the end, the fact of the matter is, we knew he’s a changed man.

When I first came across this film on Netflix, I’m curious how Lee Strobel’s book, with all the fact-checking details, would translate well to screen. Thankfully, it works thanks to the strong acting and intriguing journalistic style.

The film opens with the protagonist Lee Strobel (Mike Vogel), receiving a promotion as legal editor at the ChicagoTribune. It’s a picture of a perfect life, great job and a perfect family… beautiful (and pregnant) wife Leslie (Erika Christensen) and a young daughter Alison (Haley Rosenwasser). But soon an incident happened that shook Leslie greatly, and without spoiling too much, it led to her converting to Christianity. It’s not a spoiler as it essentially what drove the story… her conversion became the driving force for Lee to try to disprove that her belief is all a bunch of nonsense.

This film could’ve been another a Law & Order type of episode, but Jon Gunn‘s direction based on Brian Bird‘s script avoided such pitfalls. Yes it had a slow start and some slow moments, but for the most part, Lee’s quest was intriguing as it was a personal one. Despite all the interrogations, charts & graphs in Lee’s war room, the film never forget the real heart of the film, which is the relationship between Lee & Leslie which hangs in the balance. I also like that there’s an intersecting criminal case Lee worked on at the same time to keep the narrative from being too static.

I’ve never seen Vogel in anything before, but he’s pretty compelling as Lee.  He’s effortlessly likable despite his cocky, brash attitude and there’s an earnest quality about him. I was really impressed by Christensen as the patient wife who’s also got her own mind. Her conversion felt convincing to me, despite the rather cloying dialog with spiritual mentor Alfie (L. Scott Caldwell). There’s also an interesting cameo from Faye Dunaway as a renowned psychologist. She uttered one of the most memorable lines in the film when questioned whether 500+ eyewitness could have shared the same delusion claiming to have seen the risen Christ.

Now, as I was done watching this, I sensed that believers would complain that it only vaguely skims the surface of Strobel’s richly-detailed book, and non-believers would think it’s too preachy. As for me, I think the film offers just enough of the ‘meat’ of the argument about Christ’ existence and divinity, that people who are curious about it might be inclined to do more extensive research on their own. I appreciate that the film didn’t paint skeptics as evil or that paint atheism as the source of bad behaviors,

Given that Strobel himself served as executive producer, I suppose there’s no mystery as to how the film would end. It is called the Case for Christ after all, not against Him. Yet for someone who loves journalism films like All The Presidents’ Men, Spotlight, The Insider, etc., that investigative aspect certainly appeals to me. No, this film didn’t quite rise to the level of those films, but still one that’s well worth your time.

Have you seen RISEN of THE CASE FOR CHRIST? If so, I’d love to hear what you think!