Paul, Apostle of Christ hit theaters on March 23. It is a moving depiction of St. Paul, St. Luke, and the early Christians who lived under Emperor Nero’s persecutions. A few flaws don’t take away from its powerful challenge to Western Christians to show Christ’s love to all – even those who hate us. The movie easily ranks a 9 out of 10 stars.
Most movie reviews tackle a movie front to back. This one looks at key aspects of Paul that make it a very moving film.
Paul may not be who you expect
In his many biblical letters, St. Paul describes the trials he faced for God. In Paul, those trials are made manifest. The movie opens with the saint unable to offer the persecuted Roman Christians any guidance outside of making prayerful, independent decisions. The great messenger and founder of the early Christian world is not a mega-church speaker inspiring thousands, but instead an old, physically broken man sitting in a disgusting prison.
This set the tone for the movie. Paul inspired through his quiet refusal to bow to Satan’s temptations. More than once, he wakes up from torturous dreams muttering prayers such as “His Grace is sufficient” to overcome Satan’s dream visits. His jailer remarks that he can tell from Paul’s stance that he has suffered many whippings. And Paul tells St. Luke that it was the latter who kept Paul going through tough times – as well as saving his life from malaria and other illnesses.
One of the constants through the film is Paul being faced with dreams of the Christians he slaughtered 30 years earlier. The movie graphically depicts some of these killings. Paul remarks that Satan taunts by saying these men, women, and children did not make it to Heaven. In the end, Paul’s beheading leaves him being hugged by those same martyrs, shortly before he sees Christ walking towards him.
Paul drives the movie from behind the scenes
Much of “Paul” is told from the perspective of St. Luke, played by Jim Caviezel. The New Testament writer and physician pushes Paul to record his thoughts, prayers, and experiences. He is the liaison between Paul and the persecuted Church that hides in Rome.
Likewise, Paul’s jailer – Mauritiuis – is frequently on the scene. A soldier formerly covered in glory, his daughter is slowly dying. Much of the film covers his struggles with his wife, his faith in the Roman gods, and his discussions about whether Paul is a threat to Rome.
The other stars which Paul inspires are the persecuted Christians. These are faithful people pushed to the brink by starvation, targeting by soldiers, torturous death, and watching their own die for the faith. At no point do any of this community speak to Paul, yet his example and advice to have peaceful prayer drive their significant role in the film.
Paul is certainly the most frequently seen character in the movie named for him. But the subtlety of having him drive the movie even when he’s not on-camera – which happens frequently – was very well done.
Suffering is a stark reminder of how good we have it in America
If you think we have it tough in America because of some boring homilies, watch this movie. If you think America is abandoning Christianity – and it is – make this movie your next stop.
Everyone’s faith in this movie is challenged. St. Luke sees a man he knows crucified and burned to death. The leaders of the persecuted Christians see an orphan they adopted beaten to bloody death, resulting in some of the movie’s best acting by both husband and wife. Some of their followers take matters into their own hands, killing Roman soldiers to free Paul from prison despite explicit instructions to not do so. Mauritius is torn between his faith in Roman gods and the healing of his daughter conducted by Luke – the “Greek Christian” he briefly condemns to slaughter.
Speaking of slaughter, Luke’s struggle with faith comes full circle as later in the film he instructs jailed Christians who are about to be killed in “games” to hold strong to the faith. These people of all ages – children to the elderly – are told that their deaths will be but a brief moment of pain before they enter Heaven. It is enough to calm down their shock and fear at being told they will soon be painfully killed.
Two early deaths set the tone for the film. One is the death seen by Luke. The other is a woman walking around as though she is mentally ill. When they ask her where she’s injured because of the blood on her face, she cries out that it is the blood of her dead child.
Luke exposed the Christian community to save a Roman’s life
Near the end of the film, Mauritius breaks down and asks St. Luke to save his daughter’s life. Paul had recommended it during a conversation, but the jailer feared he would insult the Roman gods by asking for such assistance. In desperation, he saves Luke from slaughter and asks for his assistance.
Luke is able to save the daughter’s life. But to do so, he wrote down items he needed from those at the persecuted Christians’ shelter. He demands Mauritius get the items, and notes that just as Mauritius trusted Luke – a Christian – to save his daughter’s life, Luke is trusting him with the lives of those Luke holds dear.
Mauritius goes to the Christian community, and they help him. This leads to his daughter’s life being saved.
The three scenes – Luke examining the daughter, Mauritius going to the Christian community, and the daughter being saved – are not especially novel. But Luke exposing his community to save a Roman’s life and the way this soldier – a proud hero of two decades of war – pleads for help from those he has persecuted, were well done.
Excellent acting by Luke, Paul, and the leaders of the Christian community
The acting in general was excellent. The anger in the young men in the Christian community who see their brethren slaughtered is visible and believable, as are the suffering and faith of Luke and Paul. The indecision, frustration, and anguish of Mauritius makes his scenes worth watching.
But the best acting comes from the leaders in the Christian community. Having dedicated their lives to Rome and its homeless, Aquila and Priscilla follow Paul’s lead to pray for guidance from God. John Lynch plays Aquila, and Joanne Whalley plays Priscilla – both brilliantly. Priscilla loves Rome and what it could be – she wants to stay to protect the homeless, the widows, and the hungry. Aquila despairs of what they can do in the city, desiring to leave to spread the Word of God to other communities.
Much of their dialogue as a couple and as community leaders brilliantly brings this conflict to the fore: Is God calling this holy, married couple to break into two?
Priscilla’s and Aquila’s increasing weariness is also evident. A young orphan who they adopted volunteers to help the community escape Rome. His death midway through the movie nearly breaks Priscilla, who by the end of the movie looks years older. And Aquila’s demands for peace in the community are increasingly desperate.
Dialogue between Luke and Paul
A final point to raise is the largely excellent dialogue between Luke and Paul. At the beginning, Luke is despairing and looking to Paul for guidance and support for showing God’s love to one’s enemies. Luke implores him to inspire the persecuted Christians, and Paul asks if Luke wants them to look to Paul instead of Christ. It is then Luke who helps Paul, saying that it was Paul who opened the gate to God for Luke. This convinces Paul to dictate his history and wisdom to Luke.
Near the end, these two old friends are in prison together, cracking jokes and reminiscing about the hard paths on which they have been. Paul says that it was Luke who kept him going at times. He asks where he’d be without Luke, who jokingly replies that Paul would probably be dead.
In one of the final scenes, Luke and Paul discuss the deaths of the prisoners in “games.” They note that the trumpets sounded most loudly when the martyrs died, but rather than be depressed over this reality, they say that the trumpets are part of Heaven’s celebration of the martyr’s arrival.
No movie is perfect. There are several graphically violent scenes, most involving Paul’s persecution of Christians. St. Stephen’s bloody forehead, splashes of blood in the ground, and Paul’s bloody hands appear several times in graphic fashion. Additionally, Mauritius’ sacrifice of blood to the Roman gods is both shocking and disturbing.
Theologically, one scene stood out as problematic. Luke tells the aforementioned prisoners – who die in the games – that they will feel a moment of pain and then they will be with Jesus. And while Purgatory was not part of formal Christian teaching at the time of Paul and Luke, many could misinterpret what Luke told soon-to-be martyrs in prison: that they would feel a moment of pain and then be in Heaven. Protestants, especially, may understandably but incorrectly see this as validation of their theology that Purgatory doesn’t exist.”
Two smaller points are worth highlighting: First, that Mauritius’ daughter was near death before Luke treated her – in part by cutting her back open – but within 24 to 48 hours she is back on her feet and able to receive her mother’s arm around her back without pain. My wife, a former emergency room nurse, noted that there were no infection or other issues from the cut, either.
Lastly, there are some really corny one-liners between Luke and Paul. Most of their dialogue was impactful, but some of it could have been left out.