In Risen, a Roman soldier stands before the crucified Christ. Joseph Fiennes’ character undergoes a transformation as he leads the manhunt for Christ’s body after the Resurrection. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

A hardened soldier’s story of redemption

By 
  • February 20, 2016

A fictionalized film account of the days following Christ’s death and resurrection, Risen tries to stay true to Scripture as it tells the story of a Roman soldier tasked with solving Christianity’s most fundamental mystery.

The film recounts the events after Jesus’ death and resurrection through the eyes of a nonbeliever, Roman military officer Clavius. Pontius Pilate and the high priest Caiaphas, convinced Jesus was removed from the sealed tomb, want the body found. Amid intense political pressure, Clavius and his men embark on that mission and, along the way, the hardened soldier’s most fundamental beliefs are challenged as he starts to doubt his pagan beliefs and struggles to make sense of the prophesied resurrection.

Clavius is played by British actor Joseph Fiennes, best know for his starring role in the 1998 hit film Shakespeare in Love. A Catholic, Fiennes has called the film a story of forgiveness and, ultimately, redemption.

It is a fitting coincidence that Risen’s release coincides with the Year of Mercy announced by Pope Francis, a man Fiennes greatly admires. In Rome early this month for a screening of Risen, Fiennes attended the Pope’s weekly general audience and met Francis. He told Catholic News Agency the encounter brought him to tears.

His Clavius is someone who is conditioned to the violent life of a Roman soldier. As a military officer, Clavius has led men into many battles and rose through the ranks to become Pilate’s right-hand man. He plans to continue that rise and gain wealth and status in the Roman Empire, but his career ambitions are turned upside down after he is ordered to find the body of Jesus.

To help prepare for the role, Fiennes trained with experts in gladiator combat and worked with a top detective to research modern investigation and interrogation techniques.

“What I felt with Clavius is that he’s a fiercely intelligent man... He wants to work things out by the book,” Fiennes said an an interview with The Catholic Register.

“But however brilliant his mind is, he is stumped because he’s up against a theology which is so diametrically opposed to his way of thinking.”

Fiennes said it was important to understand Clavius’ “conditioning” as a Roman soldier. He was conditioned to a life of violence and killing that governed his thoughts and actions. As Clavius is pulled deeper and deeper into his search for Jesus, as he comes to understand what has happened, that conditioning starts to unravel.

Throughout his journey, Clavius interacts with many of the prominent figures in the Passion story, including Barabbas, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene and the Apostles as the film makes an authentic effort to portray Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Fiennes said Clavius’ personal journey is what drew him to the role.

“Clavius really gets to participate,” said Fiennes. “Of course, this is a fictionalized, historical character but it’s set against Scripture and we get to introduce this character... and he is part of this mysterious plan.”

A turning point comes after a two-day search leads Clavius to witnesses who he believes can tell him where the Apostles have hidden Jesus’ body. But when he hits another dead end, the frustrated soldier hunches over a statue of Mars, the Roman god of war, but prays instead to Yahweh.

“His god was just not working,” Fiennes said. “The Roman gods have let Clavius down, so that’s when he starts to turn.

“Also, I think he’s almost like a soldier suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. I think that he’s saturated by death and maybe he wants a way out and it comes at the right time as he is caught up in this murder mystery.”

Producer Pete Shilaimon said that throughout production story writer and co-screenwriter Paul Aiello was determined to stay true to historical and scriptural context. That vision was embraced by director and co-screenwriter Kevin Reynolds.

“A lot of people helped us with that,” said Shilaimon. “We showed the movie to a lot of people as we went. We consulted with theologians and historians of all kinds. It really takes a village from beginning to end.”

The film was shot outside of the studio, mostly in Malta and Spain, as much as possible to give the film a more authentic feel.

The film was eight years in the making. Shilaimon said the entire team is excited to see the reaction of audiences; not just Christians, but everyone. Fiennes also believes the film has all the basic elements to appeal to a wide audience.

“I’m hopeful that we can get everyone in the room and everyone can enjoy it,” said Fiennes. “The final equation of anything artists do is the audience and we serve it up for their enjoyment and that’s all you want, to bring joy to the experience.”

Risen hits theatres Feb. 18.

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