• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


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    Thursday, March 22, 2018

    Paul, Apostle of Christ (2018)

    The film's title may be Paul, Apostle of the Christ, and its biggest star (Jim Caveziel) may be playing Luke, but as much as anything, this film is as much about Priscilla, Aquila and the ordinary Christians of Rome. As the film's closing dedication confirms, this is a film about those persecuted for their faith.

    Paul is set in 67 A.D. as Nero's persecution are wrecking havoc amongst the Christian community. Paul is in prison and Priscilla and Aquila and their community are in hiding trying to decide if they should stick it out in Rome, or flee for pastures new. The impressive, but grim, opening shot tracks Luke as he arrives in Rome and is immediately confronted with the sight of his fellow Christians being burned alive in order to light up the city. He manages to dodge the Roman soldiers long enough to arrive safely at Priscilla and Aquila's house and spends much of the rest of the film going between Paul on the one hand and Priscilla and Aquila on the other.

    Whilst Paul seems resigned to his fate others are less certain about their path in life. When one of their number is killed some of the Christians want to take Roman blood in revenge. The officer overseeing Paul's imprisonment finds his orders distasteful, but not to the extent that he is willing to risk his life to defy his emperor. His wife blames his ambiguity about religion for his daughter's illness, yet when it starts to threaten her life, she soon urges him to do whatever it takes to save her life. If only there were some kind of famous physician on hand...

    Whilst several TV series have focused on Paul, films about the man from Tarsus are pretty rare. Of course he has brief roles in many of the Roman-Christian epics such as Quo Vadis? (1951) but Paul, Apostle of Christ is the first feature-length film about Paul to play in theatres since the end of the silent era. It's a little unusual, then, that the film focuses on the small part of Paul's life which we only know about from tradition (and even then, the differing accounts disagree) rather than the wealth of material that exists about thirty years of ministry.

    This is largely by design. The film is in a very different mode from the traditional Roman-Christian epic. Rather than going for spectacle and grandeur, huge crowd scenes, life-changing miracles wooed on by the soundtrack and exciting battles, this is a far more sombre and mature affair. It's deliberately heavy on ideas and dialogue. This means that whilst the budget is, presumably fairly low, the money that has been spent on it has been used wisely. The cast is generally strong, in particular James Faulkner in the title role, but also Joanne Whalley and John Lynch as Priscilla and Aquila, and the sets and costumes hold their own.

    Of course, part of the pleasure of watching Paul film is seeing which quotations the screenwriters will work into the script. Here the balance is fairly good between the biblical and the fictional and Faulkner does a great job of intoning some of Paul's most famous words. The problem is, that as Paul is more or less confined to his cell for almost the entire film it doesn't leave Faulkner a great deal else to do and we're not given as much insight into his character and personality as might be expected.

    That said, for a faith-based film this reliance on dialogue is a sign of maturity. The film never feels like it is trying to grab your attention just long enough to swoop in with a sermon when you're least expecting it. Indeed it never feels preachy and it's meandering pace and use of dialogue make for a far more satisfying experience. Furthermore, director Andrew Hyatt produces a number of interesting and occasionally very impressive shots. There's the odd misstep - the sudden recovery of the Jailer's daughter is a little too saccharin, for example - but overall it's an interesting look at the problems of persecution faced by Jesus' early followers and a useful reminder of the early church's non-violent stance.

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