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Easter in February

'Risen' courts the 'Passion of the Christ' audience

"Risen," which takes an intriguing premise -- investigating the disappearance of Jesus' body from the tomb -- and dulls it down to a hybrid of "Law & Order: Jesus Cops" and bygone sword-and-sandal fare like "The Robe."

Directed by Kevin Reynolds ("Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," "Waterworld"), "Risen" comes from Affirm Films, a label under the Sony Pictures banner that literally promises "wholesome and trusted entertainment" made of "faith-based and inspirational content." That's a sure sign that "Risen" will be an all-in religious-belief movie, one that preaches to the choir.

Obviously, there's a global audience (around two billion) for Christian films, proven in spades by the 2004 smash hit "The Passion of the Christ." And "Risen" shares with that film a modern aesthetic take on the ancient subject matter -- the gore, the desert dust, the carrion flies -- and a murky answer to the question "What's the artistic purpose here?"

If "The Passion" aimed to make us feel each lash and nail, "Risen" attempts to dramatize religious conversion and the outer limits of Christian redemption. Joseph Fiennes stars as a Roman military tribune named Clavius, who reports to Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth). Pilate tasks Clavius with cleaning up the crucifixion of "the Nazarene," aka Yeshua (Cliff Curtis), the man seen by many Jews as the Messiah, known today as Jesus Christ. Clavius' next duty is to protect the body, which he does by sealing it in a stone tomb put under armed guard.

Ultimately, when the body disappears, Clavius must try to recover it before the purported resurrection foments an uprising against the Roman overlords. In the process, Clavius examines evidence (including the Shroud of Turin); he interviews the disciples; and he tracks down person-of-interest prostitute Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) while the otherworldly Yeshua plays hide-and-seek.

Clavius busts down doors and chases through the streets to bring in his witnesses, sometimes even with a line: "Shalom, Mary," pausing to pray to his false idol Mars and to wonder at every clue. Clavius hopes for "a day without death ... peace," but that's about as far as characterization goes for this stock character of a convertible Roman who trades in his inhumanity for something to believe in.

Competent acting and direction handily stave off artistic disaster, but "Risen" has been constructed not so much to inspire as to renew the already faithful. Devout Christians will, therefore, most likely enjoy the story, despite its near-total lack of narrative tension. (I think we can all guess what Clavius will find in his investigation, and how it will affect him.)

That said, I'm not sure one can call "Risen" entertainment, and it's hardly a breakthrough. The plot has been explored before on screen: in the obscure 1987 Italian film "The Inquiry," which, unlike "Risen," productively cultivates ambiguity, and its 2006 remake; and the post-crucifixion conversion tale "The Robe," from 1953. Despite the odd timing of its release, "Risen" offers a Good Friday diversion for the faithful.

Rated PG-13 for Biblical violence including some disturbing images. One hour, 47 minutes.

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