by: Meanne M. Mijares
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
(Philippians 1:21 NIV)
James Faulkner as Paul; Jim Caviezel as Luke; Joanne Whalley as Priscilla; John Lynch as Aquila; Olivier Martinez as Mauritius
The story opens with the flock Jesus had left behind was in desperate straits. A good large piece of Rome had burned down a few years earlier, and Emperor Nero accused this upstart Jewish sect of starting the blaze. Christians were being inexorably and harshly persecuted—beaten or murdered or sent to the Circus, to be torn apart by wild brutes and beasts! Many of Christianity’s leaders had died when the film began. Those who hadn’t were either on the run or in chains, including perhaps the most principal and valuable leader of all.
For many years, Paul had traversed the Roman world, preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. He had written letters of exhortation and rebuke; educated the young Church about God’s infinite love. No one had done more to spread Christianity, other than our Lord Jesus Christ himself.
But now it seemed as though Paul’s race was just about over. He was locked away in a Roman prison, deteriorating and wasting away in seemingly its deepest, darkest dungeon. Martyrdom was just around the corner ready to strike anytime. As to the day or hour, he did not know. But he knew it was coming.
But perhaps Paul’s work isn’t finished just yet. Luke, the Greek doctor-turned-Christian-turned-gospel-author, comes to visit his good friend in prison. Perhaps Paul has one more story to tell—the history and acts of the early Church. But most importantly, perhaps he can encourage Jesus’ followers—followers in desperate need of encouragement and leadership—one last time.
Though Luke and Paul stand at the center of the story that the latter tells, let’s first turn our attention to least-known biblical characters here in the film, too: Priscilla and Aquila. These well-heeled Romans host and protect dozens of Christians in their home, putting themselves at serious risk while doing so. And as they hide young believers from the authorities, they consider some precarious questions: Should they leave Rome and find a safe place to live and grow the Church? Or should they remain and try to bring the spiritual light to the darkness that is Rome? Priscilla and Aquila are divided on the issue. Aquila insists that they won’t be any good to anyone if they’re gone, while Priscilla is firm on her stand that God is calling her to stay. They sadly argue on the matter, and there’s even an implication at one point that God may be calling them to different routes. But there’s no doubt, throughout these difficult discussions, how much they love and care for one another. And they’re thinking deeply about how best to protect both the Church and the Christians in their care.
But as I have carefully here in the film, as well as in Scripture, the early Church esteemed women and recognized their views far more than society as a whole did back then. Priscilla’s prominence in the New Testament record, and in this movie, gives voice to that fact. Priscilla and Aquila, along with Luke and Paul, work energetically to keep some of the younger, more confrontational converts from hitting back against the vicious Romans: We must turn the other cheek, they argue. “Peace begins with you,” Luke tells one. “Love is the only way.” And when a few Christians disregard those urgings, attack the prison attempting to rescue Paul and Luke, both of those leaders choose to rather tarry.
Paul, captive though he is, talks regularly with his main jailer, Mauritius—telling his adversary all about God’s love and goodness. When Mauritius’ daughter grows critically ill, and no Roman doctor or Roman god seems qualified of healing her, Paul recommends that Luke might be able to help him. Luke, with help from Priscilla and Aquila, is able to revive the Roman’s daughter and miracle of miracles, Mauritius in turn looks the other way at a decisive moment when he could have arrested them all for he has the authority under the name of the Emperor to do so.
The film, Paul, Apostle of Christ, centers on the two leaders who, between them, wrote much of the New Testament. It hypothesizes that Luke (the traditional author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts), Paul’s longtime traveling companion, visited the senior apostle during his final incarceration in Rome and obtained Paul’s account of the early Church from Paul at that point.
Some “Paul-centric” moments from Acts are told —narrated by Paul himself and shown, as flashbacks, to the viewers: how he talks about being a Jewish Pharisee enthusiastically defending his time-honored faith against this upstart religion of Christianity, and the role he played in the martyr St. Stephen’s death. He goes through his striking blindness and conversion and then begins his ministry. He speaks to the years between his pharisaical days and the beginning of his ministry, when his story was ostensibly silent. “I had to learn how to pray,” he says. “How to speak. How to love.”
Paul and Luke also hark back to about their travels together—ribbing each other regarding what awful travel companions they made in service to Christ. (Paul was especially, if jokingly, upset by the high-pitched voice Luke used to sing in.) And both take their faith very, very, very earnestly. We hear echoes of their influential works in their deliberations with each other and outsiders. Paul admits, “I have made many mistakes. But everything I’ve done, I’ve done for Christ.”
Paul doesn’t fear death a small amount, and he treats the trials that the Church is facing rather philosophically: “Christ has promised these difficult times,” he says. Priscilla, too, recalls Jesus’ words prophesying Christianity’s unavoidable persecution, saying that Christ was right “when He said He was sending us among the wolves.”
But Christianity isn’t the only religion we see here. Mauritius is, at least initially, a devout believer in Rome’s own pantheon of gods and goddesses. He has a complete shrine filled with idols, controlled over by one disc-like appearance whose eyes glow from the sunlight outside. His prayers and sacrifices grow more ardent as his daughter becomes terminally ill: A friend even suggests that the gods would look more kindly upon his petitions if he deals with Paul more punitively. And Mauritius’ wife believes these divinities have abandoned their family because Mauritius has been too compassionate with the apostle in his custody.
But Mauritius is obviously fascinated by the captivating man in chains. When the warden hears Paul speak, he’s bewildered. “You are sounding less like a leader and more like a slave,” he tells Paul.
“A slave who has been set free.”
When he’s about to be sent to the Circus with dozens of other Christians, Luke inspires them all. He says that even though they’ll surely be killed, the instant of pain will be fleeting, transitory, and then they’ll be one with their Savior. He leads them in prayer: “Father, forgive them,” Luke says, referring to the Romans of course. “For they know not what they do.”
I noticed in the film that one of Mauritius’ friends is quite vocal about his affection for prostitutes. There’s an unwritten note to rape and women being compulsorily turned into prostitutes. I get to catch a passing glimpse of a nude female statue in Rome.
I was so horrified to see how the Romans have leveled up their killing sprees to brutally murder Christians: They use them as torches for the city’s dark streets! The film commences with Luke’s entrance into the city: He stares at a street lined with the burning bodies of Christians hanging from the walls, and we hear screaming. Later, Paul sees a Christian being drenched in oil in preparation for his own final service as a living torch. (And we see the early stages of the man’s immolation.)
A valiant Christian boy steps up to deliver a message to other believers, despite clear dangers. He (and others) believed that he had a reasonable shot at survival, but is unable to make it. His broken, bruised body is taken back to Priscilla and Aquila’s house, stirring up bitter rage among some believers there. It’s not long before some of the complex’s Christians choose to take matters into their own hands: They attack Mauritius’ prison and kill a few guards (I see them stabbed, though not exactly bloodily), before they find their way to the prison’s ditch where Paul is kept.
When Luke first sees Paul in prison, he immediately knows that the apostle has been flagellated and lashed, and the doctor treats his wounds. I hear a guard talk about giving the elderly man “another 20 lashes.” There are several allusions to the cruelty and inhumaneness of the Circus, and we see some Christians walk courageously through its gates to their supposed deaths.
A girl suffers from a condition where her lungs flood with liquid: Luke treats her by perforating her back. Although the cut was not seen but the girl writhing in pain is loud enough to hear, thus draining her lungs. A woman who finds solace in Priscilla and Aquila’s complex area carries signs of a grave attack. We see people being beaten. In a flashback, we see Stephen’s martyrdom by stoning.
The film ends with Paul’s execution: there, Paul rests his head on some kind of dais as the slayer raises his sword. The camera swipes to the sky before the final blow lands
CRUDE OR PROFANE LANGUAGE
One use of “h—” word.
DRUG AND ALCOHOL CONTENT
Mauritius and a friend of his stop at a watering hole. The latter talks about his love of wines and spirits.
OTHER NEGATIVE ELEMENTS
There are no negative elements present in the film.
The film, “Paul, Apostle of Christ” is loaded with many encouraging and inspiring Christian content and positive messages. It gives us the opportunity to reflect that being an apostle or a believer of our Lord Jesus Christ is not easy. One is being tested every step of the way to prove his devotion and love for Him.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24 NIV) “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25 ESV) “In the same way, any one of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:33 Berean Study Bible) It is indeed a well- made, poignant film with strong enactments and an unquestionably compelling turn by James Faulkner, who plays the ostensible central character. As more and more Christian movies seem to make it to the open market, allow me to have a word with the aspiring faith-oriented film makers: This is how you should do it.
Honestly, Paul is not for everyone. It can be fierce and desperate and marginal, dismaying in all places: It ain’t easy to watch these living souls burn on walls, or bearing witness to the children marching to their deaths on the floor of the Coliseum. And for those who judge the quality of movies by the number of superheroes on screen—well, this Bible-based story, predicated on character, may feel quite slow in spots. Their loss: Paul, Apostle of Christ brings to life one of Christendom’s most compelling founders: a salt-and-pepper, worn-down fighter whose soul yearning for home, and who desires to bring as many other souls as possible with him. And if Christians bring along an impartial nonbeliever or two to see Paul … well, the apostle just might catch a few more.
Overall, I rate the film, 4.5 out of 5 stars.