Paul: Apostle of Christ (2018)

Paul: Apostle of Christ
was one of the most anticipated Christian films since The Passion of the Christ. Directed by Andrew Hyatt and starring Jim Caviezel in the role of St. Luke the Apostle, Paul: Apostle of Christ tells the story of the last days of St. Paul in the Mamertine prison and the composition of the Book of Acts by St. Luke. This occurs against the backdrop of the Neronian persecution in 67 AD. There was a lot that worked about this movie, and a lot that didn't.

First, what worked about this movie?

The cinematography was lovely. Like The Nativity Story, the costumes and settings really give you the sense that you are actually in ancient Rome. In many respects, it was a very satisfying film to watch visuallyoverall. I thought the casting was very well done. The star of the cast was James Faulkner, who played St. Paul. Faulkner's performance was exceptional; the character was extremely well written, and evidenced a much deeper sense of mysticism and deep piety than I have seen in other film depictions of Paul. Jim Caviezel gave a good performance as Luke, and all the supporting cast was great as well.

But lets get on to the real meat and potatoes of the film: this movie was about moments of grace. And I stress moments of grace. Small moments of beauty and grace in times of darkness, and how those small moments can make all the difference. This movie is distinctively different from many of the other popular contemporary Christian films (e.g., Courageous, Facing the Giants, etc) in that it does not conclude with a miracle and everybody getting saved. There's a beautiful scene in the film where St. Paul is talking to the main Roman antagonist, Mauritius (Olivier Martinez) about Christ. Mauritius says "What if after all this I still don't believe in your Christ?" St. Paul chuckles and replies, kind of tongue-in-cheek, "Oh, I wasn't trying to convince you", to which Mauritius smiles and begins crying. He gets up and walks off, after lovingly clasping St. Paul. The movie leaves us without knowing if Mauritius converts or not. But it definitely demonstrates the working of grace in particular moments. Will the tears of Mauritius bring him to penitence? The movie does not say; but the fact that he has tears at all shows us that grace is at least operative.

The whole film is like this; Christians evacuate Rome, but it gives no indication that the persecution lets up. A small Christian boy volunteers for a heroic missionand is brutally murdered. St. Luke has a touching moment ministering to a sick man, but fails to save him. St. Paul and Luke restore hope to the Christian community and win the respect of their Roman captors, but Paul still gets executed in the end. There are all sorts of instances where grace is active in the darkness—and whether or not things turn out the way we would like is almost irrelevant. The point is that light is there, shining, working imperceptibly. The best example of this is the Luke's composition of the Book of Acts. The way Luke writes is by secretly visiting St. Paul in prison every night to dictate his story. Thus, in the dark of night, in the midst of Rome's most notorious prison, by the light of a small candle, two saints collaborate in penning the inspired history of the birth of the Church. That candle light shining in St. Paul's cell is really an emblem of grace. "Where sin abounds, grace abounds more," as St. Paul says, a line quoted in the film.

So, as a moving testament to the operation of grace, even in the midst of very dark times, this movie works. It is faith-building. It was moving. It was very aesthetically pleasing to watch, for the most part.

However, it had some real, substantial down sides as well. You have noticed my qualifiers when I speak about the film's cinematography. The one reservation I had was that so much of this movie was dark, visually. So much of the movie takes place in Paul's cell at night. Or in Roman night. Or in the shadowy chapel of Mauritius' house, or his dark bedroom. Visually, it all looks great, but its all so dark it gets dreary after awhile.

About half way into the movie, I started to feel like there were too few sets. The story basically bounced around between a few different locations:

  • St Paul's prison cell
  • Mauritius' "office" at the prison
  • Mauritius' daughter's room
  • Mauritius' chapel
  • Aquila and Priscilla's house
  • Some random garden

There area few other random shots of streets and things like that but these are the six main sets. With the exception of the garden, all of them are very dark in tone. I noticed this repetition of sets because of some questionable omissions. For example, there was scene when some Christians were supposed to go out into Nero's circus to be killed, and it showed them being shoved out the door, but we never see any image of Nero's circus
—we merely hear their screams. Why? The martyrdoms of Nero's circus are some of the best attested of the ancient world and very epic in substance. It's puzzling that we had no visual of them. Instead we just get Luke talking about them after the fact.

Speaking of Nero, he is referenced throughout the entire film, but we never see him. From the opening of the movie to its closing, characters are discussing Nero, or reacting to his policies, or contemplating how to remove him. I really though the climax of the movie was going to be an epic confrontation of St. Paul with Nero. I was so excited to see the how the film would handle the character; I have always been a big fan of Peter Ustinov's famous portrayal of Nero in Quo Vadis; Christopher Biggins' Nero in I, Claudius was also great. I was eager to see another cinematic Nero. Alas, I was disappointed. Nero never appears. I could not understand why; Nero is such a rich personality, I could not imagine why they would have intentionally left him out when he was so central to this epoch of history. Then it hit me
—adding Nero would have meant the inclusion of another set, which would have stressed the budget. With it's (relatively) meager budget of $5 million, Paul: Apostle of Christ had to make do with as few sets as possible. Just for comparison, the horrific 2011 Adam Sandler comedy Jack and Jill had a budget of $79 million. With only $5 million to work with, Andrew Hyatt was very limited on his visuals. This is why the repetition of the same six locations, why the omission of a scene in Nero's circus, why no Nero character is ever introduced, why the Great Fire is only boringly talked about but never depicted. This is why this movie is confined basically to four cramped, dark little rooms, a garden, and Aquila's house.

The backstory of St. Paul is pathetically underdeveloped. For a movie named after him, we really don't get much info on him. We see a little bit about his conversion in a few flashbacks shows over and over again, and then nothing. Nothing about his apostolic travels. Nothing about his preaching and miracles. Nothing about his journeys. Nothing.
I was really hoping this movie would be a dramatized version of the Book of Acts; I was sorely disappointed in this regard.It's like...the movie set out to tell the story of Paul but then got bored with it thirty minutes in and decided to shift to something else.

Which gets to a huge gripe I have about the movie, that I was not sure who the protagonist was. The movie is called Paul: Apostle of Christ, so I assumed it would be Paul, except Paul barely leaves his prison cell and is extemely passive through the entire film. As I said above, it dabbles in his back story but then simply abandons it. I did not really identify with him as a protagonist; all we really get are close ups of him talking. Talking. So much talking. Ugh.

A more logical assumption would be Jim Caviezel's Luke character, who is much more active, passionate, and actually has a character arc; but then again, the focus on Luke kind of fades in and out as the movie finally decides to refocus on a fictional Roman officer named Mauritius whose daughter is sick. Mauritius has the biggest arc of any character and the second half of the film focuses almost exclusively on his personal journey. By the end of the film you feel like you're watching a movie about this Roman officer. It's not a bad thing; Olivier Martinez plays this role very well. But it's unfocused.

The point is, I am not sure whose perspective I am supposed to be seeing this movie through. I am not sure who I am identifying with. Yes, obviously we can identify with more than one character; that's what makes the Lord of the Rings trilogy so great is all the characters are very identifiable. But this film is a little different because it's so unbalanced. It seems like the writers originally intended the movie to be about the relation between Paul an Luke, but as filming progressed they kind of forgot about that and got more interested in this Mauritius character, which is why the second half of the film is so fixated on him.

Speaking of fixations, I have to rant about something I always see in films with a religious theme: I'm sorry, but not everybody is obsessed with "the problem of evil." It's such a tired old trope. A character wants to believe but is scandalized by the presence of evil in the world. In this film, it is Luke who falls prey to this skepticism. It's like modern people - Christians and skeptics alike - can't imagine that not everybody at every time has wrestled with the problem of evil. Based on my own study of history, I can say that this modern preoccupation did not seem to be a huge problem in antiquity. Not that thinkers weren't aware of the problem of evil as a philosophical-theological dilemma; they certainly were, and many, like St. Augustine, wrote about it. What I mean rather is its uncommon to see people back then citing the scandal of evil as an impediment to faith. I can't think of a single document or biography I've ever read from the Middle Ages or the ancient world where someone said, "I'd really like to believe in a loving God, but it's so hard to because of all the evil and suffering in the world." I have never ran across that. But it seems like moderns are absolutely obsessed with it. Like they can't even conceive of a situation where that just might not have been an issue for people. It's a very modern sort of crisis. It was kind of boring when they introduced it into the movie here; when Luke started expressing his personal struggles with the idea that God could be allowing such evils, I rolled my eyes and thought, "Oh we go with this old trope again."

One more thing I thought was irritating; for a movie set in Rome in the apostolic age, you'd think there'd be some mention of St. Peter. Nope. If we go by the movie alone, there's no indication that Peter has anything to do with Rome, which is very disappointing.

Was it a horrible movie? No. Not by any means. It's not that it was bad so much as that it missed out on so much. It could have been so much better. In many respects it was kind of dull. There were some little moments of grace that were moving, but they were like little kernels that had to be picked out of a larger pile of dreariness. It was just...poorly written and did not translate well into a movie. I give it one and a half tiaras.