US, 2018, 107 minutes, Colour.
James Faulkner, Jim Caviezel, Olivier Martinez, John Lynch, Joanne Whalley.
Directed by Andrew Hyatt.
Melbourne, March, 28th, 2018 (Peter Maone). This biblical film was released in the same month as Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene with Rooney Mara as Mary and Joaquin Phoenix has 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 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 a Luke, 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.
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 moreserious adult rating.
(There have been some television films featuring Paul, especially the 1980 Peter and Paul with Anthony Hopkins as Paul and Robert Foxworth as Peter.)
SOME COMMENTARY ON THE FILM AND ITS THEMES.
- 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.
- Two of the central characters in Rome, featured strongly during the film, are the tentmakers Aquila and Priscilla, the tentmakers from Ephesus who are referred to in Acts, 18 with whom Paul worked and lived, and who began to preach, then journeying with Paul. (There are explicit greetings to them in Romans 16, one Corinthians 16, 2 Timothy 4.) A reading of this chapter of Acts and the chapters around it would provide helpful background to appreciating the film, its characters, conversions and persecutions.
- Paul is presented as something of an elder statesman. James Faulkner’s portrayal of him as an old man is of a very dignified, serious disciple of Christ, reflecting on his mission, reflecting on his death, welcoming Luke, conversing with him. In some ways the performance presents Paul more as an icon, quoting the Scriptures and his letters, rather than as a developed character. It is up to the audience to supply, from their knowledge of Paul, the strengths, emotions, of his character.
- The film ends with a lengthy quotation from 2 Timothy (which scholars say was not written by Paul himself but is used as part of the screenplay, the summing up of Paul’s perspective on his life and mission, as written by him).
- While there is some mention of Peter and other disciples, these references are minimal, perhaps surprising because of the possibilities of Peter’s presence in Rome at this period.
- With audience aware of his playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Jim, Caviezel (with American intonation is in contrast with James Faulkner, British, Joanna Whaley as Priscilla, British, John Lynch as A[PM1] quila, Irish, Olivier Martinez as Mauritius, French- accented English and a selection of European actors) is a centre of audience attention. He portrays Luke with some dignity, seeming sinister at first sight because he is hooded and trying to avoid the Roman authorities. He makes contact with the early Christian community, witnesses their way of life, makes contact with Paul, converses seriously with him.
- Luke features with a fictitious character, Mauritius, played by Olivier Martinez. He is a Roman soldier, in charge of the prison, very loyal to the Emperor, initially seen as firm on rules and regulations. However, the wife whom he loves is very concerned at home about the serious illness of their daughter. Finally, Mauritius will appeal to Luke who has been functioning also as a doctor amongst the community, to come to his daughter, diagnose what is wrong with her, heal her. Which Luke does, Mauritius then is able to give some leeway to Luke, Paul and some freedom to walk in the gardens, and to the Christians.
- The presentation of the Roman soldiers is mixed, some inhumane and authoritarian, some with the more human touch and sympathy, enabling Luke at times to move around more freely, though there is always the possibility of betrayal and enunciation to the authorities.
- With the burning of Rome and the persecutions, the small Christian community is rather close-knit, some migrants from Asia settling in Rome, like Aquila and Priscilla, others local converts – especially a young man who volunteers to communicate outside the Christian community but is set upon violently and killed.
- The film raises the dilemma for the Christians as to whether they should stay in Rome (again no reference to Peter and his leadership). Aquila and others are keen to move back to Asia. Priscilla states that she has come to love Rome and the Romans and feels that she should stay, especially with the persecutions and the deaths.
- There are some rebels, like the zealots of the gospel, who want to rise up against the Romans and overthrow them – especially, a young character, a Roman, called Cassius. However, they are defeated by the soldiers.
- Many of the Christians are rounded up and imprisoned, threatened with death in the arena, men, women and children. However, they are reminded that their horrible torture and deaths will last only a few moments and then they will be free and with Christ. They are shown going into the arena in this spirit.
- 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.