Review – CSI: Jerusalem? (“Risen”)

Just in time for Easter, Columbia Pictures has rolled out a religious movie that has a refreshing spin to it: no CGI rock-angel-aliens like 2014’s epic fail Noah, no in-your-face religious overkill tones like God Is Not Dead, and no by-the-book biblical retelling like Son of God.
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It’s your typical day in 33 A.D. and world and war-weary Roman centurion and tribune, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), has just been summoned to see an anxious Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) about some Jewish rabble-rouser that he just crucified. Pilate wants Clavius to be sure that this man called Yeshua (he’s never called Jesus in the movie) is dead because of some wild rumor claiming he’s the Son of God. But at the crucifixion site (with Passion of the Christ gruesomeness) Clavius sees that Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) is, in fact, very much dead.

Later, the local Sanhedrin (Jewish priests and elders) throw the political card down at Pilate and want Yeshua’s stone tomb sealed and guarded due to Yeshua’s own prophecy of rising in three days. Clavius secures the tomb tightly with rope and wax seals, but the next morning, the huge stone is blasted open, the ropes are ripped apart, and the guards have fled in fear. What did they see? Pilate immediately has Clavius launch an investigation with the help of young Lucius (Tom Felton), an up and coming lieutenant.

Clavius, even praying to his own gods, is not having any luck. He questions possible suspects, arrests eyewitnesses, examines the ‘crime scene’, bribes snitches, and even has dead bodies unearthed to find clues, much to the consternation of Pilate who wants results… NOW! After talking to a repentant Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) and a way-too-happy Bartholomew (Joe Manjon), Clavius hears about a gathering of Yeshua’s disciples. But Clavius gets the shock of his life when he bursts down a door on the disciples meeting and sees… the risen man himself! Yeshua! But, how can this be?

Befuddled, amazed, and searching for answers, Clavius abandons his Roman post and follows the guys into the wilderness to meet up with Yeshua again for the final time by the Galilean shores. Oh, and did I mention that Lucius is after him with a whole garrison of soldiers as well? Funny, I don’t recall reading about all this in Sunday School.

Based on biblical events (although some time-lines were juxtaposed), this wonderful “what-if” screenplay was written by first time-writer Paul Aiello and director Kevin Reynolds (Dances With Wolves, Waterworld). Void of any real CGI, green-screen, and SPFX, this down-to-Earth basic bible throwback film is reminiscent of the 1970’s mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth. Just a meat ‘n’ potatoes story with a great cast, on-location shooting, dialogue that isn’t stupid or too preachy (although Batholomew does go there once), and Reynolds’ excellent direction. It does slow down towards the ending with an unfulfilling climax, but the message is clear and doesn’t throttle you over the head like other Christian movies tend to do. Personally, I would have like to have seen more of the investigation part and the questionable 40 days that Jesus spent here, but…

Fiennes and Felton make a great team as a sort of Judea detectives looking for answers and Firth makes a terrific pompous Pilate. I also have to point out the excellent casting of New Zealander Cliff Curtis as Yeshua (aka Jesus). Not since Jim Cavaziel in The Passion of the Christ has anyone looked like what Jesus should look like in film. Personable, compassionate, and NOT a blue-eyed, brown-haired British-speaking guy. Yeah, I’m talkin’ to YOU, Robert Powell!!

Ben-Hur (1959)

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A man living in biblical times who’s searching for the truth? Look no further than the epic William Wyler film that won an amazing eleven Academy Awards and cemented Charlton Heston as Hollywood’s golden child.

In 26 A.D., a wealthy prince and merchant, Judah Ben-Hur (Heston) lives the sweet life in Jerusalem with his mom and sister. His childhood BFF, Messala (Stephen Boyd), has been bumped to a powerful Roman tribune and new commander of a Roman garrison. While ego-crazy Messala believes in the glory of Rome and is power-hungry, Judah is a homebody and believes in the freedom of his Jewish people. Already there’s tension between them.

During a parade for Gratus, the new governor, some roof tiles fall off Judah’s home and spook Gratus’ horse, throwing him off and nearly killing him. Sure, it was an accident, but Messala seizes the opportunity for some payback and has Judah condemned to be slave and imprisoning his mom and sister! What a Roman dick!  Judah naturally swears revenge and, as luck would have it, gets it… but it takes years

Judah’s tenure on the slave ships proves providential, as he saves the commander, Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) from death. Impressed and grateful, Arrius makes Judah his son, learns the Roman way, even becomes one helluva charioteer, winning race after race. His prowess with the horse and chariot catches the eye of super-wealthy Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), who gets Judah to race in the mammoth Roman Coliseum AND against Messala! Judah beats him and learns at Messala’s death-bed that his mom and sister are alive… but lepers! Oh no!

BUT! Judah has heard of a certain prophet named Jesus from Nazareth that has performed miracles, so he tries to find him, but Jesus has been put on trial for claiming to be the Son of God! With time running out, his last chance to save his family is to see Jesus at his crucifixion. Will his search be rewarded? Will Judah’s mom and sister be cured? Will Judah have HIS faith restored?

Clocking in at 212 minutes, this blockbuster holds your attention with every minute, thanks to a beautiful and thrilling screenplay by Karl Tunberg. A colossal budget, massive sets (no CGI here, people), thousands of extras, a chariot race that has to be seen to be believed, and awesome acting make this religious movie more than the sum total of its parts. Director Wyler directed the hell outta this film, leaving his mark like no other. It’s simply magnificent on SO many levels, I could lavish praise for another twenty paragraphs.

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