91% of RottenTomatoes readers like new movie ‘Paul, Apostle of Christ’ — but critics? 35%
The Apostle Paul, writes Anglican scholar N.T. Wright in his new biography of the most famous and widely discussed convert to Christianity,
might dispute the suggestion that he himself changed the world; Jesus, he would have said, had already done that. But what he said about Jesus, and about God, the world, and what it means to be genuinely human, was creative and compelling—and controversial, in his own day and ever after. Nothing would ever be quite the same again.
VIDEO: MovieGuide.org reviews ‘Paul, Apostle of Christ,’ which just hit theaters this weekend
Paul’s writings make up just eighty or so pages, which Wright notes is less than any solitary dialogue by Plato or treatise by Aristotle. Why, then, have countless books, articles, and monographs been written about Paul’s life, epistles, and thought? While the new movie Paul, Apostle of Christ does not try to answer that question, it provides a hint of an answer while indicating, in a rather low-key but often compelling way, why Paul is just as challenging and, yes, relevant as he was nearly two thousand years ago.
To the credit of the writer and director Andrew Wyatt, the film does not aim to be epic or even, in many ways, intensely dramatic. This has been a point of criticism in some reviews; I suggest they are missing the point, which is to depict the daily struggles of an extraordinary man among ordinary people living a radical faith in a death-dealing, soul-crushing culture—specifically, the city of Rome in the year A.D. 67, not too long after the crazed emperor Nero had accused the Christians of starting the great fire of Rome. Much has been made, quite rightly, about the film’s focus on the persecution of Roman Christians under Nero, which is related, in some ways, to the very real persecution of Christians today, especially at the hand of various radical Islamic groups and movements. (The movie is dedicated “to all who have been persecuted for their faith”.)
But to focus on this alone would miss a key point made early in the film by Priscilla (Joanne Whalley), who tells the evangelist Luke (Jim Caviezel), “We are the only light left in this city!” She says so in the midst of a struggling group of first generation Christians who are frightened, perplexed, and even doubting. Wyatt and crew, fronted by the strong acting of Caviezel and James Faulkner (Paul), choose to focus on the small details and subtle struggles, emphasizing how the daily choice to follow Christ must be rooted in an abiding, even struggling, faith in the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. When I spoke to Wyatt recently about the film, I asked him if it was fair to say it is a more intimate drama aimed at capturing the inner struggles of both Christians and non-Christians in ancient Rome. That’s very fair,” he replied, “Not to downplay what others [filmmakers] are trying. But epics can lose the humanity. In this film, you do get to know the personal struggle of what these people are dealing with.”
Not that the film is devoid of drama or tension. The brutality of Roman rule is depicted efficiently and effectively; the general callousness toward women and children is contrasted with the care and charity shown by the Christians. Paul, who is in chains in Mamertine Prison, is not just weary, but beaten down in every possible sense. His isolation can be heard in his own words, in his second letter to Timothy: “Luke alone is with me” (2 Tim 4:11). That simple line, in fact, was an inspiration for the film, which quotes heavily from Paul’s writings, mostly to strong and even powerful effect. In short, life in the ancient Roman Empire was usually short, often ugly, and occasionally hellish.
This article continues at [Catholic World Report] “Paul, Apostle of Christ” depicts the extraordinary faith of ordinary people