(Rated: PG [Canada] and PG-13 [MPAA] for some violent content and disturbing images; directed by Andrew Hyatt; stars James Faulkner, Jim Caviezel, Olivier Martinez, Joanne Whalley, John Lynch, Noah Huntley, Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Manuel Cauchi; run time: 108 min.)
Thoughtful exploration of mercy, forgiveness, love
When watching “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” viewers will be well-served to remember St. Paul’s words to the early Corinthian Christians: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27).
Most people don’t think much of Christian films and studios, yet Sony Pictures’ Affirm Films wouldn’t be dedicated to producing them had Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) not been so successful.
For some, the trailer for this new film will look like another sword-and-sandal film, only this time it’s light on the sword and heavy on bearded-men-in-shabby-robes talking with one another.
While “Paul, Apostle of Christ” is clunky in spots and at times a little overacted, it shines brightly where it needs to and, in the end, is a remarkable film.
The premise of “Paul, Apostle of Christ” is St. Paul’s letter to St. Timothy, in which he says, “Luke alone is with me” (2 Tim. 4:11). Paul (James Faulkner) is imprisoned in Rome’s Mamertine Prison around 67–68 A.D., near the end of Emperor Nero’s reign.
Fire has swept through the city, and Nero blames the Christians, so they are under persecution — imprisoned, burned alive in the streets as human torches, and thrown to the wild beasts in the Coliseum’s circus. A group of Christians under the care of Priscilla (Joanne Whalley) and Aquila (John Lynch) live in fear and uncertainty.
The film opens with the arrival of St. Luke (Jim Caviezel), who has come to see Paul and the other Christians.
Three interwoven plots
Three plots interweave with Luke, who is connected to each thread: the central plot of Paul in prison; the persecution of the Christian community; and the illness of the daughter of a fictional Roman soldier, Mauritius (Olivier Martinez), the Mamertine Prison’s warden.
Filmmaker Andrew Hyatt has commented that in creating the character of Mauritius, he drew from scriptural accounts where Peter, Paul and Jesus interacted with various Roman centurions, prefects, guards and their families.
As a result, viewers familiar with those biblical accounts will feel an authenticity to the fictional story of Mauritius, his wife, Irenica (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), and their sick daughter.
Including fictional characters in Bible dramas has a long tradition: think “The Robe” (1953) and “Ben-Hur” (1959, 2016). More recently, Affirm Films released “Risen” (2016) about a Roman centurion who oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus and was tasked with investigating Jesus’ Easter resurrection for Pontius Pilate.
In the character of Mauritius, Hyatt has produced a welcome and worthy addition to these fictionalized Romans. The story of Mauritius and his wife — as they struggle with their devotion to the pantheon of Roman gods and interact with Christians like Paul and Luke — is very compelling.
The weakest part of the film, where viewers see the overacting and the film’s clunky bits, is the plot around Priscilla and Aquila. Since much of this happens in the first act, some viewers may find it hard to stick with the film.
But the weakness in these early scenes won’t matter when the film hits its exceptional conclusion.
Brilliant casting of Paul and Luke
Casting James Faulkner as Paul is brilliant. As an actor, he is known for playing gruff, hard, even cruel and unpleasant characters, a quality he likewise brings to “Paul, Apostle of Christ.”
The genius is that this quality resonates with the person Paul was in his earlier life: Saul of Tarsus, a man who believed himself virtuous, but who had lived his life fueled by hate and anger.
What Faulkner provides is a performance wherein Saul is still present, but having been christened as Paul by Ananias (Manuel Cauchi), is now a personality tempered by the love of Christ and the grace and mercy of God.
Still gruff and hard, a wretched man saved from his sin, Paul boasts not in himself, but in Christ Jesus. This is a believable portrayal of Paul and an unexpected-but-welcome, nuanced performance of a redeemed man.
Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), is equally fascinating as Luke. Viewers familiar with the earlier film may at times recall Caviezel’s portrayal of Jesus, such as when Luke says to Paul, “I never met Christ in person, but the day I heard you preaching in Troas, I saw Christ in you.” While the casting of “Jesus” as Paul might seem distracting, it is, as executed, a brilliant choice.
With few exceptions, the characters of Paul, Luke and Mauritius ring true. Likewise, the collision of Christian and Roman virtues, ethics and religious convictions is well-portrayed.
Among several depictions of pagan sacrifices and prayers, there is only one instance of Holy Communion, and it is not in the context of congregational Christian worship. There is one powerful moment, however, where Christians pray together the Lord’s Prayer.
A family film?
Is this a family film? Mature Christians and interested individuals will get a lot from “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” but be forewarned: the film is rather bleak, unfolding slowly as it builds patiently to its conclusion.
Not all viewers will embrace the pacing and grim nature of some scenes nor find them appropriate for small children. Teenagers will likely have less trouble with the blood and persecution than with the slow pacing.
But parents don’t have to worry about their children seeing gory scenes of wild animals attacking and eating Christians in the Coliseum. While these are talked about, and Christians are shown entering the Coliseum, Hyatt doesn’t include graphic depictions.
That said, the film does show Nero’s human torches, and that may be too much for sensitive viewers.
As a filmmaker, Hyatt shows great restraint in taking liberties to create a fictionalized story. “Paul, Apostle of Christ” is different from films like “The Young Messiah” (2016) and the TV miniseries “A.D. The Bible Continues” (2015), which strayed further in their speculations and took greater liberties with the scriptural accounts.
For instance, Hyatt doesn’t yield to the temptation of including a scheming Emperor Nero or other trappings of conventional historical dramas that could compromise the point of the film. Instead, he opts for a more thoughtful character study of Paul, Luke and Mauritius.
Although much of the film is fictional, it is also faithful and filled with Scripture. This is a film deserving of a wide audience, and while it may be panned by the world as just another weak and foolish Christian film, it is a strong presentation of forgiveness, grace and mercy, and is exceedingly wise in its portrayal of love.
Watch the trailer:
Listen to “Issues, Etc.” host Rev. Todd Wilken interview the Rev. Ted Giese about a Christian viewer’s perspective on “Paul, Apostle of Christ” and other contemporary motion pictures.
The Rev. Ted Giese (firstname.lastname@example.org) is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; a contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and Reporter Online; and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese.
Posted March 29, 2018