Joseph Fiennes' Risen Converts Bible Movie Critics with Refreshed Gospel Story
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Modern-day faith stories are Affirm Films' bread and butter. The Sony Pictures-backed production house pleased movie-watching churchgoers with Soul Surfer and Courageous and hope to again with Sherwood Pictures' upcoming release, War Room. Come January 2016, they're going back in time to tell a post-crucifixion story like it's never been seen before.
Nashville-based producer Rich Peluso is hoping to start next year off right with Risen, a New Testament period film starring Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, Luther) and Tom Felton (Harry Potter series). The Kevin Reynolds directed project tells the story of a high-ranking Roman tribune who's tasked with tracking down Jesus' body after rumors spread that he's come back to life.
Though a departure from Affirm Films' typical contemporary fare, Peluso jumped at the chance to help bring this unique perspective of the Gospel story to the silver screen.
"I absolutely fell in love with it," recalls Peluso, thinking of the first time he read the script for Risen back in 2007. "It was just well-crafted, just strong writing. But more importantly was that it unabashedly told the story between the crucifixion into the full-on resurrection, into the ascension and traveled with Christ into Galilee with the disciples all the way to the ascension. No one really ever tackles that. The second thing that was completely fresh about it was that most stories of Christ are told through either an omniscient point of view... or it's through a disciples' point of view."
A Roman Point of View
New Testatment-inspired movies usually follow Jesus' storyline from his perspective or that of his followers, but Risen seeks to tell a different side of the story.
"We have to think about the fact that when Jesus rose, the grave was empty. There were Romans that were there to guard it," Peluso says. "What on earth was happening on the other side of the room that we're not paying attention to? Something had to happen. At some point, Caiaphas had to get the news that the tomb was empty, and at some point Caiaphas had to confront Pilate with it, who'd had him killed. Pilate, who had to have sanctioned the guards at the tomb had to have been embarrassed, because his military, who's the greatest army in the world, just failed in their job. So there are all of these political, spiritual, social dominoes that are falling...."
Risen takes the point of view of Clavius, a skeptical Roman commander serving under the rule of Pontius Pilate. In Risen, Clavius (played by Fiennes) begrudgingly investigates the disappearance of Jesus' corpse, hoping to root out answers, only to uncover more questions.
"It's from his story, an unbelieving, pagan, Roman, powerful man who encounters these believers and who is thrust into really the most important event in human history," Peluso explains.
"So [Clavius] goes in with a vengeance to shut this down," he says. "But he's also a fair man and a judicial man, so he's weighing the evidence. It's kind of this collision of The Passion of the Christ and the sequel with CSI."
Having played German monk and reformer Martin Luther in the 2003 film, Luther, Fiennes is no novice when it comes to working on films about Christianity. According to Peluso, Fiennes' talent for the dramatic lends well to the layered character of Clavius.
"He's just a powerful force on camera. He emotes love and power. He's just something to behold on screen. He does an amazing job as Clavius," Peluso says.
Just Another Jesus Movie?
You may be shaking your head at this point, asking yourself, "Why another Jesus movie?" Well, Peluso has an answer. He knows without a doubt that Risen offers something different, something audiences, regardless of their faith or lack thereof, want to see.
"Because of the perspective of coming in this through the eyes of a nonbeliever, it feels very comfortable for nonbelievers to try this story on like a jacket," he says. "And that's not just assuming it; it's through our testing."
Having tested the film four times, thus far, in front of large audiences, Peluso has gotten the rave reviews he wanted.
"What we're seeing from non-Christians and those who do not regularly attend church is that they do not feel preached to. They don't feel kind of hit over the head with Jesus or the Bible. But, they are intrigued by this man and His followers. They are intrigued by the story of what happened, the birth of Christianity and the fact that the infrastructure of Judea, both the Sanhedrin and the Jewish leadership and the Roman leadership were all about crushing this man and crushing His followers. So that automatically lends them credibility."
"Jesus is not talking at them heavily through this movie. It's through Clavius' interactions with Jesus and Clavius' interactions with the disciples that we learn of Jesus' teachings and we learn who He is as the Son of God. And again, it all feels just so easy to try on for the unchurched."
From believers, there was one, unifying message Affirm Films received during the faith-based testing.
"They're just relieved that it's not like the two big Bible movies of last year, in that it didn't take liberties beyond acceptable levels in their mind. So they were relieved," Peluso says. "And we're excited that Christians feel like they can embrace this story."
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