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Peter T. Chattaway

Two Tales of the Christ

"Risen" + "Hail, Caesar!"

Ever since The Passion of the Christ came out a dozen years ago, filmmakers have tried to replicate its success, with varying results. In 2014, "the year of the Bible movie," big-name directors put new and unconventional spins on the stories of Noah and Moses, and while both films were moderately successful at the box office—especially overseas—their revisionist takes on the Old Testament and its stories of God's judgment were a turn-off to some viewers. This year, filmmakers working in the genre have reduced their budgets and narrowed their focus to the life of Jesus, but they are still exploring the story from unconventional angles. The Young Messiah takes place when Jesus is only seven years old; Last Days in the Desert imagines an incident that took place near the end of his temptation in the wilderness.

And then there is Risen, which recasts the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as a sort of police procedural. Like The Robe—the 1953 blockbuster that starred Richard Burton as a Roman officer haunted by his role in the death of Jesus—the film revolves around a military tribune who is involved with the crucifixion and then has bad dreams about it. But this time, the protagonist, named Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), also takes part in the burial of Jesus and is ordered to find the body when it goes missing from its tomb. (Just to make things seem even more urgent, we are told that Pontius Pilate is expecting a visit from the Emperor Tiberius in a few weeks—an improbable plot device that was also featured quite prominently in last year's TV series A.D. The Bible Continues.)

What makes Risen work, for the first hour or so at least, is the way it sticks to Clavius's jaded, skeptical perspective and asks us to imagine how the story of the Resurrection would have sounded to someone who hadn't witnessed it for himself. Clavius digs up one body after another, hoping to find a corpse with wounds that match the Nazerene's, and he interrogates several ...

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