Screening the Bible: “Paul, Apostle of Christ” (2018)

Much as I love films that partake of the biblical epic tradition, I have to confess that these days I go into any new quasi-biblical-epic with a fair amount of trepidation. All too often, the attempt by filmmakers to be “devout” ends up hamstringing the films. They become not only spiritually toothless but cinematically boring (and sometimes downright dreadful). Thus, I went into Paul, Apostle of Christ with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised to encounter a passably entertaining film.

In terms of quality, Paul is a more prestigious and polished production than this year’s Samson, which showed definite signs of a shoestring budget and an independent Christian studio. Paul, produced by Affirm Films, an imprint of Sony, clearly had a bigger budget, more talented stars, and better writers. As a result, it just feels different, in the sense that it feels like an actual movie rather than an illustrated bible story (it’s not that there’s anything wrong with the latter; it’s just that I want more bang for my buck if I’m going to go to the cinema).

Though at first I thought it was odd that the film chose to focus on the last years of Paul’s life rather than on, say, his conversion or his travels with Luke, gradually I sort of accepted this is part of the film’s purpose. Paul is far more interested in the spiritual struggle he undergoes in the last days of his life, as he is recounts to Luke his own deeply vexed relationship with Christianity. The nuanced and emotional performance that James Faulkner gives renders Paul a deeply complex figure, one haunted by his earlier persecution of faithful Christians.

These flashbacks are executed with moving grace, and the sequence depicting the stoning of Stephen is particularly emotionally rich and wrenching. It is clear that this incident in particular weighs on Paul’s conscience, as the camera dwells with an almost alarming fetishism on the drops of the martyr’s blood splashing onto the stones. This earlier Paul was also no respecter of age, and it is heavily implied that he was responsible for the death of children. Faulkner’s gravelly voice and raw-boned physique captures, I think, the essence of a profoundly spiritual man struggling with the man that he was and who he attempts to be.

While I’m not Jim Caviezel biggest fan, he does bring a certain noble grace to his portrayal of Luke, and it is fortunately not quite as heavy-handed as his portrayal of Christ. It was actually rather refreshing to see Luke and Paul remembering their time on the road together, traversing the Empire. His evangelist is a man driven by both a sense of duty to the new faith as well as a personal loyalty to his friend and mentor, and Caviezel manages to capture that.

I’m still on the fence about the Roman commander Mauritius (played by Olivier Martinez). The actor is passably good, but the miraculous healing of his daughter is a bit too neatly done. Perhaps if the film had been strictly about his crisis of faith I would have been more convinced, but unfortunately this part of the film feels remarkably underdeveloped and not as emotionally resonant as it should be. This is especially striking, given that one would think that a miraculous healing would be a profoundly spiritual moment in a film, but alas, it rings rather hollow.

This lack of resonance is something that mars most of the film. Unfortunately, because Paul is in prison, Paul the film has to pay attention to several other plot threads that are not nearly as interesting. I’m still not quite sure why it is that so many of the more recent biblically oriented films try to beef up their biblical accounts with exactly the wrong sort of extraneous material. Instead of focusing on the trials and tribulations of Roman Christians (as this film does), I would have rather had more screen time devoted to Paul, perhaps the incidents that led up to his imprisonment by Nero. But, alas, that is not the film we got, and that is unfortunate.

In terms of its formal characteristics, the film relies more on tight framing than the vast, wide-angle shots we typically associate with biblically-oriented films. Nor does it rely on CGI. As a result, the film works much more as a personal drama rather than as an epic, and that is actually a good thing. If you don’t have the ability to make a big-budget spectacle, you should at least play to your strengths, make the most out of your actors and the sets that you can afford. Paul, fortunately doesn’t try to do to much, and that is one of its main strengths.

In essence, Paul is about the struggles of early Christians to persevere, despite the historical forces arrayed against them. The end, which shows the community fleeing Rome, is a strangely ambivalent one. While clearly the Christians will one day rise up to supplant the imperial power that has so ruthlessly persecuted them, the film prefers to project that day of victory into the future. As a result, the ending leaves us as spectators suspended on a moment of perilous possibility.

All in all, Paul was an entertaining film, though a rather staid one. I don’t know that it has much to offer either the truly devout or those who are more earthy in their film tastes, but it does gesture toward the possibility of producing biblical films that are not epic either in scope or in execution. However, if the Hollywood studios continue to try to make these kinds of films–or if Christian filmmakers do–I hope that they at least try to give their audiences some bit of credit. Just as importantly, I hope they turn back to the book that supposedly is the source for their narratives. If they do so, they might just find enough material there to make a film that is entertaining for both devout and secular audiences.

What a true miracle that would be.

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