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Movie Review

‘Risen’ elevates the faith-based film

Peter Firth (left) and Joseph Fiennes in a scene from “Risen,” directed by Kevin Reynolds.
Peter Firth (left) and Joseph Fiennes in a scene from “Risen,” directed by Kevin Reynolds.Rosie Collins/columbia pictures

Faith can move mountains. But can it make movies?

Previous efforts by Affirm Films, the Christian wing of Sony Pictures, have been … pious. With their latest venture they seem to have figured that, since religion is essentially a mystery, perhaps a religious film should be a mystery, too. So “Risen,” by writer-director Kevin Reynolds (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves;” “Waterworld”), plays like an episode of “CSI: The Gospels.”

Yeshua (Cliff Curtis, appropriately from the AMC series “Fear the Walking Dead”), the leader of an upstart offshoot of Judaism, has been crucified. He promised his followers he would rise from the dead in three days. If someone stole the body and claimed that the prophecy came true, that could stir up revolt, not to mention the wrath of the Sanhedrin, who see Yeshua as a dangerous heretic. So Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) calls on the only man he can trust to make sure that doesn’t happen – his tribune, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes).

Freshly bloodstained after methodically wiping out a revolt of Zealots, Clavius begrudgingly takes up the assignment. He has a big stone rolled over the tomb, lashes it with ropes and seals it with the Roman equivalent of crime scene tape. He assigns soldiers who talk like extras in “Life of Brian” (another improvement over the typical religious film – a dry sense of humor) to guard it.

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A couple of days later, Pilate calls on him again. The body’s disappeared! Clavius must find out what happened to it before the rumor gets started that Yeshua has indeed been resurrected. And so begins the detective work. He examines the evidence in the tomb, including the Shroud of Turin, which will be puzzling skeptics for millennia to come. He digs up lots of dead people. He interrogates witnesses — Mary Magdalene (a moving Maria Botto), various disciples — and gets closer to the source of the mystery.

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We know how it turns out, but seeing from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know and doesn’t believe adds more cogency. And as played by Fiennes, who has the aquiline face and piercing eyes of Max Van Sydow, Clavius is no pushover. You believe his disbelief, so when it wavers, yours might as well.

***

RISEN

Directed by Kevin Reynolds. Written by Reynolds and Paul Aiello. Starring Joseph Fiennes, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis, Maria Botto. At the Boston Common, suburbs. 108 minutes. Rated PG-13 (Biblical violence including some disturbing images).