Paul, Apostle of Christ - A Surprising Portrayal of a Christian Hero
Last weekend, my husband and I celebrated Easter by going to see Paul, Apostle of Christ. As you probably remember from a previous entry, I’m not a big fan of “faith-based movies” due to their tendency to forgo the elements that make up a great story in favor of hitting the audience over the head with a moral Message. To recap, this isn’t a good way to minister to filmgoers. Christians may enjoy seeing their faith be the focus of a movie, unknowingly giving into a confirmation bias. However, non-Christians may feel alienated or even insulted, since the stories tend to portray the Christian characters as entirely good and the unbelieving characters as entirely bad. Therefore, I’m almost always skeptical when going to see a movie centered around Christianity, even though as a Christian, I should be psyched beyond belief.
I was thrilled to see that director Andrew Hyatt did not take this typical approach, and even surprised me by taking an unpredictable angle on Paul’s life. I was expecting a linear account that began with the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr, and continued through the rest of his life. Instead, the film primarily centers around the persecution of the church in Rome during 67 A.D. The story begins with the arrival of Luke (Jim Caviezel) to visit Paul (James Faulker), who is locked in the brutal Mamartine prison awaiting execution. He hopes to have a final audience with Paul so he can write an account of his life. As Luke gathers the final wisdom Paul has to offer, the Roman church struggles with Nero’s violent persecution and attempts to make some difficult choices about whether to remain in Rome or flee for their lives.
The best part of this film is that the writers make no attempt to glorify Paul despite his renown as a hero of the Christian faith. To portray him as such would in fact be an affront to his character, as Paul never saw himself as great apart from the power of Christ in his life. His writings are full of moments when he declares his imperfections. In Romans 7:24, he mourns, “Oh wretched man that I am!”; in 1 Timothy 1:15, he calls himself the chief of sinners. Similarly, the movie shows Paul not as an infallible leader, but as a man deep in the midst of a personal struggle.
One of the most creative aspects of this portrayal is the depiction of the “thorn in the flesh” Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 as “a messenger of Satan to buffet me lest I be exalted beyond measure.” While much has been made about the “thorn” being blindness or some other health issue, the movie portrays it as guilt over the Christians he persecuted, brought on by accusations from Satan in an attempt to refute the grace of God. In several scenes, Paul is plagued with nightmares where his victims haunt him. In one of these scenes, Paul awakes in terror, calms himself, and speaks to the Lord, declaring that “your grace is sufficient.” In these moments, Paul becomes real for viewers. As real as he is in his glorious writings, we grasp the fact that despite God’s grace, he faced the temptation to wrestle with his past.
The film even goes beyond Paul’s story by including the character of Mauritius (Olivier Martinez), a fictional Roman prefect in charge of guarding Paul’s underground cell and ushering Luke in and out of the prison. Dealing with estrangement from his wife and a daughter who is battling a mysterious illness, Mauritius continually turns to the Roman gods for relief from his troubles, but finds none. With the pressure building at home, he begins a tentative friendship with Paul, who shares the truth of Jesus Christ with him throughout the story.
This plot could easily have gone bad, with the explanation of the Gospel overtaking the dialogue to the point of a lack of believability. However, that simply doesn’t happen. Spoiler alert: Mauritius doesn’t become a Christian, at least not on screen. In fact, the ending shows a great deal of ambiguity about whether or not he actually does. The lack of a tearful, melodramatic conversion scene, one of the critical conventions of the faith-based movie genre, adds depth and realism to both his character and the rest of the movie. This is what the real world is like: in most cases, the tearful conversion doesn’t happen, and we are left unaware of whether the seeds we plant actually take root.
Obviously, the movie has a lot of strengths, but it isn’t without weaknesses. Although the setting of the story during the Roman persecution is successful, many of the key moments from Paul’s life are depicted through voiced-over dramatizations rather than shown as actual scenes. This tactic largely fails – in particular, the lack of an actual portrayal of the stoning of Stephen leaves a big hole in the telling of Paul’s story. At a runtime of one hours and 48 minutes, the filmmakers could definitely afford to add an extra scene as a flashback to demonstrate where our central character comes from. Some other critical elements of Paul’s life also remain unexplained, perhaps due to the assumption that audiences already know the story. Not so – viewers unfamiliar with Paul’s life, for example, might be confused by the mentions of Timothy, who is never explicitly defined as Paul’s disciple.
Overall, as a writer, I was extremely pleased with Paul, Apostle of Christ and encouraged by its quality. It does what a good story should do: it develops a narrative and lets the theme organically emerge rather than trying to superimpose the narrative onto an ideology. In light of last week’s post about viewing biblical narratives from multiple viewpoints, it successfully and believably brings to life figures we know well from scripture, showing their emotional responses to the events. There’s something for everyone – Christians will be encouraged by the portrayal of Bible, while viewers belonging to other faiths or no faith at all will be treated to a great historical drama.