Presents early church in relatable light
Modern Christian films have a deservedly bad reputation. They’re frequently cheap looking, filled with over the top villains, and forced morals that frequently drive people away from respect for Christian traditions. That wasn’t always the norm, though. Great Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur are frequently listed among the best films ever made. Even more recent films like Prince of Egypt and The Passion of the Christ received critical and box office praise. However, more recent films like the God’s Not Dead series and anything directed by Kirk Cameron have dug Christian films a hole that they are working against upon release, even when it’s an inaccurate claim.
That is the situation facing Paul, Apostle of Christ. This movie released into theatres a week ago and is being raked across the coals by critics. At the time of this review, the film sports a 38% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 48% on Metacritic. Interestingly, the Audience scores are far higher, with RT’s Audience rating at 90%. The short take on this film is that it does not fit the mold of most modern Christian films. It is a very good movie. Not flawless at all, but not worth being raked across the coals.
As alluded to in the open, there are three major criticisms thrown at modern Christian films. First, they look and feel very cheap. Second, the villains are over the top and unrealistic. And third, the morals are jammed down your throat. None of these problems apply to Paul. To answer the first claim, this is not a cheaply made film at all. The sets and costumes are time appropriate to first century AD Rome, and the feel of the world is on point. The cinematography is also very well done. Geraldo Medrazo uses light and shadows very well to highlight Paul’s age and wisdom while languishing in prison and the effects of Nero going crazy. It’s excellent work. The soundtrack is also well put together. Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, the man who scored Finding Neverland, balances time appropriate instrumentation with floaty piano and string pieces designed to lighten the soul. It’s an excellent score, particularly for the film’s ending. It gives emotional resonance and compliments the final words spoken by Paul: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim, 4:7).
There are some technical problems with the film, though. Some of the transition feel out of place and others are badly rushed. Director Andrew Hyatt could have tightened the film’s pacing a bit more than he did. Also, they reuse some exact shots for two Paul flashback films. It makes sense, as it highlights Paul’s transition from persecutor to persecuted and gives the ending some emotional punch. But its so lazy. They just repeat many of the shots verbatim. No altered views, no short replays of stuff already shown, just the same shots you’ve already seen of Saul persecuting Christians before hitting the road to Damascus. Just interspersed with other similar but new shots and sometimes slowed down to pad running time. This could have been made far more interesting with more creative shots and new stuff to expand Paul’s recollections while in prison.
One other complaint: why is the film in English? Mel Gibson made an intelligent decision making The Passion of the Christ in the languages of the time. Jesus spoke Aramaic, Pilate spoke Latin, etc. It gave the film a sense of realism and threw the audience into the situation. Giving Paul and all characters a language that would not exist for another millennium in a recognizable form draws some realism out. It works well enough, but I’d have liked this to be a real sequel to Passion.
Back to positive stuff and answering frequent problems. The villains are not horribly irredeemable. The Romans are clearly shown as the antagonists. They throw Paul and Luke in prison, hang Christians on crosses, throw oil on them, burn them alive, beat and murder children, and instill a sense of fear and terror that is unavoidable. There is no doubt regarding who the villains are and how callous and deadly they are. However, Rome is not without some redeemable souls. Olivier Martinez plays Mauritius, the prefect of the prison where Paul is held. He is the film’s face of Roman evil. Yet, he does have a sympathetic side. He struggles with his marriage and his daughter is sick and dying. He’s desperate to save the people he loves from harm while trying to do his job for the Empire and attempting to understand this special prisoner he’s watching. He is an interesting and developed character that shows incredible development from start to finish. There are other, irredeemable Romans who spend time at brothels, torture prisoners, and live a hedonistic and selfish life. Martinez’ character is absolutely perfect, though. An excellent villain with some sympathy and a heartwarming character arc.
As for the final issue, forced morals and goodie two shoes heroes, neither are here to be found. James Faulkner and Jim Caviezel give stellar performances as Paul and Luke respectively. They both bring credibility and humanity to these incredible evangelists and saints. Faulkner’s portrayal of Paul is touching, heartfelt, and inspiring. His character is an embodiment of forgiveness that is lacking in the world today. He also drops plenty of wisdom on his jailors and speaks the Christian message and philosophy beautifully. Caviezel is excellent as the messenger and scribe of the faith. He speaks well and is a likeable member of a joyful group of people. Speaking of those joyful people, John Lynch and Joanne Whalley are enjoyable as the famed missionay couple Aquilla and Priscilla. These two are fun to watch, even when working through incredibly trying situations and scenarios. They aren’t presented as faultless. They show some disagreements, debates, and mistakes the community makes, including a show of fruitless immaturity from some of the young men in the community. The heroes know God and serve God, but they do not appear as blameless. They are relatable and real people. There is still some hokey acting, but it’s not too common or distracting.
So can I recommend this movie? To any religious people, without any hesitation. This presents the early church in a real, relatable, and enjoyable light. And as a practicing Catholic myself, this film left me grateful for the work and love shown by those early saints who changed the world. For a non-religious person, I would still recommend it. Go into it with an open mindset and you’ll find an enjoyable and well made film about a group of radically holy lovers that inspires the best of humanity.