Arts & Books Comment

A Passion drama that lacks a sense of mystery

The Crucifixion in Risen, set in an era of cruelty and intrigue

Risen (12A, 107 mins, ★★★), set in 33AD, tells the story of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection from an unusual perspective: that of an ambitious, battle-hardened Roman tribune, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), who has built his career on bloodshed in the service of the Roman Empire. The prefect of Judea, a silkily uneasy Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth), commands Clavius to hasten Christ’s death on the Cross, which he does with an unfamiliar sense of foreboding. Clavius is then ordered to find Christ’s body when it has gone missing from the tomb, during which task he finds his own sturdily pragmatic nature both shaken and transported by events unfolding around him.

Kevin Reynolds directed and co-wrote the film, which gives its audience a fresh sense of an era studded with casual cruelties and beset by intrigue: Pilate is preoccupied with establishing order ahead of Emperor Tiberius’s imminent visit. In Cliff Curtis as Jesus, or “Yeshua”, it also has an actor who (although of Maori origin) looks convincingly Middle Eastern while exuding warmth, in contrast to the bleached piety of so many past depictions.

In its later stages, however, Risen slips into a more workaday rhythm; something sharper, stronger and stranger was needed here in order to reimagine the original mystery of faith.

The title character in Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite (15, 129 mins, ★★★★), otherwise known as Baroness Dumont, has faith of a different kind – in the beauty of her own voice. That belief, however, is misplaced: in full throttle, she sounds like a cat being fiercely beaten in an alleyway.

This lushly decorative film (a French take on the true story of the tuneless American soprano Florence Foster Jenkins) is set in 1920s Paris. The wealthy Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot) has long treated the upper-class members of her music club to her vocal recitals, which they have cynically applauded as the price of her generous sponsorship. False acclaim has fed delusions of greater success, and when two bold young men – one a journalist, the other an artist and anarchist – are drawn to Marguerite’s wealth and disruptive possibilities, mischievously praising her in print, she begins to aspire to a more public stage. The subtext to Marguerite’s behaviour lies with her unfaithful husband Georges (André Marcon), who is both protective of his wife and drained by her artistic follies. Yet with her headlong pursuit of fame – a precursor of the modern notion of stardom without talent – she hopes to recapture his attention.

Along the way, the film offers a lively depiction of the Parisian demi-monde, which comes to fleece Marguerite and ends up almost wishing to shield her. Frot, her face sweetly aglow, imbues her with a child-like mixture of innocence, excitement and generosity. One fears for Marguerite: rarely has a lack of talent been so endearing.

This article first appeared in the March 18 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here