“A deliciously beautiful film, while at the same time honorable and true to Scripture.”
Actor Joseph Fiennes is talking about Affirm Films’ upcoming release Risen, in which he plays an agnostic centurion serving under Pontius Pilate.
When Jesus’ body somehow disappears from the tomb, Fiennes’ character embarks on a search for the missing corpse. He hopes to disprove rumors of a risen Messiah, and thus prevent a Jewish uprising.
Fiennes — whose film credits include starring roles in the Oscar-nominated films Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love — was in the United States and talked with Register correspondent Kathy Schiffer on Jan. 21 about his latest project. Fiennes, who was raised Catholic, described the film as a “detective story.” The film will be released nationally on Feb. 19.
“When I read the script,” he said, “I marveled at the fact that I’d just digested a biblical story that came across as an extraordinary murder mystery. The script kept me turning the pages, without me really knowing how it would end, because when you see it through this fresh set of eyes, Yeshua’s resurrection really is the mother of all murder mysteries.”
He plays the role of Clavius, a powerful Roman military tribune who is sent, with his aide Lucius (Tom Felton), on a manhunt to find the missing body of Christ.
Fiennes described his character as a very analytical, intellectual man, but one who is also spiritual, in the sense that he prays to the Roman gods, particularly the god Mars. As Pilate’s go-to man, quelling insurrections and rounding up zealots, Clavius has served in a ministry of death.
He’s hardened, exhausted and nearing the end of his military career. And Fiennes senses that his character is ready for a change.
“What’s wonderful,” Fiennes explained, “is that, through an irrevocable happening in an upper room, therein begins Clavius’ journey of questioning and self-doubt.”
Fiennes was drawn to the role of Clavius, a role which tests his acting skill — as the character is transformed before the audience’s eyes. At first, he is a stoic, ambitious military man willing to kill to advance the empire and his career; then, only three days later, he is a seeker whose imagination has been sparked by his encounter with the risen Christ.
“Clavius arrives at a crossroad where he realizes there might be a life beyond everything he knew before, something outside of his previous conditioning,” Fiennes said. “Having put this supposed Messiah out of his misery, Clavius comes face-to-face with Jesus again at the end of the film when he’s resurrected, and that’s a big turning point.”
Fiennes turned the conversation in a different direction, talking about the challenges and discomforts the actors faced on set in Spain and Malta, filming in a searing summer heat.
Fiennes’ costume was made of leather and iron; and on the first day of filming, he wondered whether he would be able to survive the next three months.
“Leather and 100 degrees don’t go well together,” he said with a laugh, looking back. “I didn’t know whether I was the man for the job.” And, alas, his role required sandals — and he wondered how the Romans had conquered so much of the world in such uncomfortable footwear.
In preparing for the role, Fiennes spent time with a police detective, learning interrogation techniques. “Although this is a biblical story,” the actor said, “I wanted to be pragmatic about what Clavius needs to do, because I really do see the piece as a noir detective story.”
Although his role kept him separated from the cast members who played the disciples, Fiennes particularly enjoyed the scenes in which he connected with them.
“I was jealous that I wasn’t a disciple,” he confessed, “because, off camera, they seemed to be having so much fun. They were always together, telling stories and jokes. They had private prep sessions, and they gathered together for prayer.”
He also enjoyed working with Cliff Curtis (of AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead), who played Jesus (referred to as Yeshua), and Tom Felton (Harry Potter, Labyrinth), who played his trusted sidekick.
The story of Christ’s death and resurrection has been portrayed on the big screen many times, from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent film The King of Kings and the 1965 blockbuster The Greatest Story Ever Told to, most recently, Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ, which was fittingly released on Ash Wednesday.
What makes Risen stand apart from these other accounts is that director Kevin Reynolds imagined the narrative told through the skeptical eyes of a nonbeliever.
And Reynolds hopes that Risen, with its spectacular vistas, visceral action scenes, earthy characters and detective-mystery framework, will appeal to a wide audience, attracting not only Catholics and other Christians, but also nonbelievers. “We don’t really want to tell anyone what they should believe,” said the director in the film’s production notes. “People can use this film as a vehicle to examine their own spirituality or just enjoy the story purely from a cinematic standpoint.”
Fiennes expressed it differently: Essentially, this film, he told the Register, “is a balance and dance between the deeply conservative, which fails to satisfy the cinematic audience, and the deeply revisionist, which is insensitive to Christian values and Scripture.”
Fiennes’ hope is that the film will attract not only the devout, faith-based audience, but also nonbelieving cinephiles.
“For them,” he said, “the take-away message will be that the Christian faith is a religion of second chances — that just as Clavius was changed by his encounter with Yeshua, so can we all be changed. Deep down, there is a wonderful conversation here that is inescapable and touches us all.” It promises to be a powerful Lenten meditation.
Kathy Schiffer writes from Southfield, Michigan.
Risen is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for the following reason: biblical violence, including some disturbing images.
Editor's Note: Read "SDG Reviews 'Risen'" here.
WITNESS TO CHRIST. Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), with Jesus’ disciples, witnesses a miracle in Risen. Columbia Pictures