Paul, Apostle of Christ

PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST,   US, 2018. Starring James Faulkner, Jim Caviezel, Olivier Martinez, John Lynch, Joanne Whalley. Directed by Andrew Hyatt. 107 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and violence).

This biblical film is released in the same month as Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene with Rooney Mara as Mary and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus.

Mary Magdalene was produced by a production company that was not overtly religious. Paul, Apostle of Christ, by contrast was produced by a company for faith-based films, Affirm. The screenplay, which has strong elements of realism in its presentation of Rome, is also quite devout in its presentation of its central characters in the early Christian community, their way of speaking, their faith, their outreach to the persecuted, their mutual support. Many audiences may find this too devout for their taste

This story of Paul has been made for specifically Christian audiences, the whole range of denominations. Its appeal to non-Christian audiences will be in its depiction of ancient Rome in the mid-60s, the aftermath of the fire, the rule of Nero, his persecution of Christians, their being burned as human torches in the Roman streets, their being sent into the arena to be killed by wild beasts. In this, the film is successful, providing a rather vivid picture of the times, Roman rule and oppression, the small Christian community, persecutions.

The Christian audience will also be interested in this depiction of Paul  (played by James Faulkner) in his later years, a prisoner in the Mammertine prison, oppressed in his cell and flogged, given some reprieve at the end, though finally, with great dignity and decorum, beheaded. The other central character of the film is Luke (Jim Caviezel), having written his gospel, visiting Rome to see his friend, Paul, and to continue writing of Paul’s mission, ultimately, The Acts of the Apostles.

As a biblical film for a faith audience, there is much to commend in its depiction of the times – and it does incorporate into the screenplay a number of gospel texts and, especially, quotations from Paul and his epistles - with the interlude in the prison writing and listening to Paul’s memoirs and dictation.

The film presupposes a great deal about the life of Jesus, his gospel message, as well as the mission of the early apostles and disciples – though there are some scenes of Paul as Saul, persecuting the Christians, especially a re-enactment of Stephen’s martyrdom, with Paul’s subsequent conversion, his retiring to Arabia for several years to absorb the gospel message.

The film also presupposes some knowledge of Paul and his mission, his journeys, the various communities which received his letters, their message and their tone.

A classification caution – very early in the film there are scenes of the Christians being mounted on poles in the Roman streets and being set alight and burning. Later, more by suggestion than actual scenes, the martyrdoms in the amphitheatres have gruesome overtones. Which means that the film, which might have been helpful for children and learning more about Paul and Christian history, has a more serious adult rating.

In older decades, a lot of religious instruction was done through catechisms and, especially for some Catholic schools, Bible History stories as well as those of the early church, text and drawings for the students to imagine and memorise their Bible History. In some ways, this version of Paul, Luke, the early Christians and Rome is a cinema equivalent of this kind of Bible History instruction.

(There have been some television films featuring Paul, especially the 1980 Peter and Paul with Anthony Hopkins as Paul and Robert Foxworth as Peter.)

Sony                                         Released March 29th

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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