Some months ago this film critic presented a review of Scorsese’s Silence—a movie that definitely explored the issue of how Christians respond to martyrdom. Consistent with the director’s own well-know faith struggles, Silence delivered an ambiguous, troubled look at committed Christians giving in to their persecutors, a movie that certainly concluded that dying for one’s faith is always flawed if not really impossible—perhaps not even something Jesus expects of his followers.
Paul the Apostle on the other hand, produced by Affirm Films, the “faith-based” arm of Sony Pictures, also examines Christian martyrdom and, as should be expected, is a positive treatment of how early Christians remained faithful to Christ but nonetheless dares to explore serious spiritual conflicts faced by believers when confronted with shedding their own blood for Jesus.
The movie directed by Andrew Hyatt starring Jim Caviezel as Luke and James Faulkner portraying Saint Paul takes place in 67 A.D. toward the end of Emperor Nero’s reign. True to the historical narrative, Christians are blamed for the fire that consumed ten of Rome’s fourteen districts—the local church scapegoated by Nero for a fire many believed he himself started. The movie opens with the horrific imperial persecution of Christians in full swing in which believers are hunted down, some even set on fire and burned as human torches. Paul is already captive in the infamous Mamertine prison awaiting his execution. Luke who is permitted to visit Paul in his dark, dank cell provides him with comfort and spiritual companionship—but the flamboyant, fiery, missionary Paul of the epistles is gone. Instead Faulkner presents us with an old, haunted, physically exhausted Paul who can barely stand erect—but yet someone who still possesses a quiet, intense devotion to the Lord he encountered on the road to Damascus. With nothing much to do but think and reflect, Paul is tormented by his own past persecution of Christians. His “many regrets” are shown to the audience in several flashback sequences including Paul’s involvement in the stoning of Stephen. Frequently throughout the film there is a mysterious little girl who leads a crowd of people walking towards Paul. The viewer will not know who they are until the film’s very end.
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Luke’s visits to Paul provide him with encouragement and Luke convinces the weary apostle to dictate his personal experiences that Luke will use to compose Acts of the Apostles. Luke assures Paul this is a much-needed narrative to encourage Christians who are still in need of his spiritual wisdom. Indeed it is the very much-beleaguered Christian community headed up by Paul’s own assistants Aquila and Priscilla that seeks such wisdom from their spiritual master. Here is where the film explores the question: should Christians just stay and face martyrdom—or should they flee, go elsewhere and continue to spread the gospel? This question provides the film with much of its dramatic tension. Moreover, this underground church faces a schism when some of its ranks resort to violence and retaliation against their Roman oppressors contrary to Paul’s admonishment that Christians are called to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors as did Christ himself. Here the film has Paul quoting the famous verses of 1 Cor. 13: 4-7 often used in marriage ceremonies: “Love is patient. Love is kind … there is no limit to love’s forbearance” spoken in a context in which the Pauline text achieves its full gravitas.
Paul the Apostle provides a compelling sub-plot focused on the interaction between Paul, Luke and Mauritius, the “warden” of the Mamertine prison played by Oliver Martinez who turns in a well-done, thoughtful, understated performance. Mauritius is not just a one-dimensional bad guy. While over-seeing the imprisonment of Paul and his eventual execution he and his wife are distraught over the mysterious illness of their young daughter. The film is attentive to Roman culture and provides a rare look at Roman devotion to the gods of the empire to whom Mauritius offers mysterious, exotic sacrifices, hoping these pagan deities will cure his sick child. These religious rites are contrasted with the new-fangled, distrusted and illegally practiced Christian faith to which the Roman prefect desperately turns—an episode in the film used to great effect in highlighting the medicinal skills of Luke the Physician.
Paul the Apostle is without cinematic spectacle—no huge crowd scenes, no edge-of-your-seat action sequences, no pomp of Roman Empire splendor that one finds in such films as The Robe, Ben-Hur or even Gladiator. It is not a biblical blockbuster and does not intend to be. Andrew Hyatt’s movie is a thoughtful, sincere, respectful mounting of a biblically based story that explores Christian issues of doubt, faith, and forgiveness. The movie may be accused of being too low-key, too quiet, too muted in its presentation, but perhaps in this way Paul the Apostle escapes the usual in-your-face preachy cinematic errors of most faith-based movies. It may also be faulted for its completely conventional cinematic style, no risks are taken and no new ground is broken in the film’s technical approach to its subject matter. Thus Paul the Apostle is a good film—but not a great one. If new ground is broken it is in the movie’s fresh approach to a theme the film industry has beaten to death—the Roman Empire verses Christianity.
The movie’s last image stays with the viewer. Paul is indeed executed (no spoiler-alert needed there!) and now in the afterlife the crowd led by the little girl comes to greet him. You’ll have to see the movie to find out who they are—but to its credit Paul the Apostle ends on a well-done and poignant note. In this Easter season, treat yourself to this good Christian film.