Dr. Alex Wainer, professor of communication and media studies
Self-marginalized from the wider culture throughout the 20th century, evangelicals especially have been seeking inroads into engagement with music, film and other mediated forms, both as consumers and creators in the 21st, but often find themselves so accustomed to their most familiar mode of communication, the sermon, that their works, as produced by fellow believers and eagerly consumed by churched audiences, often come off as musical or cinematic preaching rather than compelling art.
Indeed, judging by opinions expressed by some of my mass media students, Christian movies aren’t high on their list of favorite films for this generation, thus Christian filmmakers continue to have a storytelling challenge.
The new film, Paul, Apostle of Christ, which arrived the weekend of Palm Sunday, in time for Holy Week, is the latest attempt to transcend this tendency and tell our story using a more aesthetic approach to film. The results are mixed but bear promise of good things to come for Christian films.
Set in 67 AD, the story is set in Rome after the great fire that swept through the city and for which the Emperor Nero has blamed the small sect of Christians. The decadent emperor has begun sweeping up believers and dousing them with oil before mounting them on poles to ignite as living torches throughout the city. St. Paul (James Faulkner) is in prison awaiting his death sentence while the Christian couple Aquila and Priscila (respectively played by John Lynch and Joanne Whalley), mentioned in Paul’s letters, oversee a hidden collection of Christians and the city’s outcasts they seek to care for. Into Rome comes Luke (Jim Caviezel), the gospel author, to find his old friend Paul at some risk to himself and potentially the other Christians of the city.
The dramatic conflict in the script has several sources. Paul himself, dwelling in his dark cell, struggles with his inability to help the church at Rome, advising the faithful to decide for themselves whether to stay or go as they seek God’s guidance. He also struggles with the thorn in the flesh described in II Corinthians, identified in the film as his guilt over the Christians he pursued viciously as Saul of Tarsus until his blinding Damascus Road conversion, rather awkwardly presented in the film compared with the later scene of the restoration of his sight.
Paul’s inner struggle over his past sins might surprise those who believe his thorn in the flesh was, as many scholars believe, a physical ailment. Though strangely reluctant at first to share details of his story with Luke, an old friend, he finally sees the benefit of supplying them for what will eventually become the book of Acts.
Caviezel, a devout Catholic and, of course, best known for playing Christ in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, plays Luke as a concerned friend of Paul who harbors some doubts about how all this persecution will play out. Still, Luke finds the strength to do good to those who despise his faith, particularly on the Roman officer overseeing the jail, Mauritius (Olivier Martinez). His daughter lies desperately ill and his many sacrifices and appeals to Roman gods for her healing go unanswered.
Meanwhile, Aquila is in disagreement with his wife as he thinks it best for the beleaguered Christians to flee the city before they join others in the Roman circus of death, whereas Pricilla doesn’t want to abandon those they could help in the city. And yet another subplot features angry young believers who think it best to take up the sword to free Paul from prison.
All these plotlines compete with none strong enough to form a dominant narrative core.
It’s always challenging to present a fictionalized account of historical, and indeed, sacred figures, so perhaps the writer/director Andrew Hyatt found the greatest freedom, as so many other authors of biblically set stories have, by putting most of the drama on a fictional character storyline, in this case, Mauritius’s. Aided by Martinez’s charisma, his Roman character is frankly the most interesting character in the film with the most dramatic potential.
The title of the film -- Paul, Apostle of Christ -- suggests we will see a biographical approach but the $5 million budget surely prevented pursuing such a challenging production focusing instead on a few days in the life of the Roman church; and the sedate pacing and understated performances might make the film feel more artistic than your average faith movie but most audiences will expect more energy in an American production.
Despite these drawbacks, there are truly moving moments in the film that allow Paul to be the towering figure he is when he recites from some of his “greatest hits,” in conversation with Luke, particularly from I Corinthians 13; and the film is a cut above the average goal of many contemporary Christian films, often aimed at fears of persecution that haven’t actually happened. However, the film depicts a time when life and death were daily concerns for the fledgling church and is dedicated to those in today’s worldwide church who are truly suffering for their faith. Viewing Paul, Apostle of Christ should give a much-needed perspective on how we in the 21st century might consider our relative freedom, comfort, as well as obligations and attitudes toward those in power.
Dr. Alex Wainer is Professor of Communication & Media Studies in the School of Communication and Media. He is author of Soul of the Dark Knight: Batman as Mythic Figure in Comics and Film.