Paul: Apostle of Christ. Film.
We usually do not review films here. I can only think of one exception. I did, however, want to share a few reflections on this film.
First and most of all, it was well written. It was Shakespearean—not in its language(!), but in its plotting and execution. I was expecting something along the lines of the Sholem Asch novel The Apostle. Paul:The Apostle of Christ was much more focused. It could easily be adapted to a stage play.
The main character is actually the Gospel writer Luke. He visits Paul in prison prior to his execution to get his take on what becomes the Book of Acts in the Bible.
Paul here is a tragic hero. He is a victim of irrational persecution. The Emperor Nero blames Christians for the fire that destroyed much of the city of Rome, and Paul is one of their leaders. We do get flashbacks, but they are nearly all concerning Paul’s early life as a persecutor of Christians himself.
The story is not ironic, though. The story is about the possibility of change. Besides Luke and Paul, the third main character is Mauritius, a fictional character, the Roman officer in charge of the prison where Paul is kept. Mauritius is reminiscent of the character Zerah in Jesus of Nazareth, arguably the best film about the life of Jesus.
Zerah is an observant Jew who argues forcibly and effectively that Jesus is a troublemaker and should be executed according to Jewish law. However, we also realize that Zerah understands and even agrees with much of what Jesus has taught. We last see Zerah in front of Jesus’ empty tomb after the resurrection.
Is Zerah convinced? Will he become a follower of Jesus? We do not know. The audience is left, however, with a challenge—was the tomb empty? Did Jesus rise from the dead? If so, then shouldn’t we pay attention to what he has to say?
So Mauritius and his wife are becoming frustrated, if not skeptical, about the Roman gods in spite of their belief that the Roman gods must be superior since they have helped Rome conquer so much of the world. They have a very sick daughter that no one seems to be able to heal. Paul tells the jailer that Luke is a “great physician.” (I think of Colossians 4:14, where Paul calls him the beloved physician.)
There is no Ben-Hur style miracle. Mauritius humbles himself enough to ask Luke to take a look at his daughter. The well-traveled evangelist tells him he has seen something similar on the island of Rhodes. The girl recovers, not by a supernatural miracle, but by Luke’s medical knowledge.
Indeed, the overall theme of the film is really love. Not the cheap Hollywood love, but the willingness to give in spite of circumstances, to even help your enemies when they are sick. Will Mauritius convert? We do not know. Like Zerah, he has seen the evidence and lifestyle. So have those of us who watched the movie.
That is also Shakespearean, historical figures that act the way the historical record treats them. In some cases Shakespeare may got it wrong; for example, Macbeth most likely was not into witchcraft, but the history book Shakespeare used accused him of it. So Paul: Apostle of Christ presents the community of believers in the early Church the way the Bible presents at least some of them.
In one almost humorous scene, a turnkey has discovered the manuscript Luke has been transcribing in the prison from Paul’s recollections. Mauritius reads it, and says that he cannot understand why anyone would be interested in such a story. It has no wars, no heroes. It is about ordinary people. Ah, just so.
One scene is almost out of Richard III. In flashbacks, Paul remembers some of the people he persecuted, people like Stephen, often called the first martyr (see Acts 7). They do not haunt him the same way they haunt Richard III because Paul knows he is forgiven—indeed Stephen forgave the men who were stoning him. (Acts 7:59-60) Still, it is most interesting to see how the film treats these figures.
Paul: Apostle of Christ can be brutal in places. It is not the most pleasant movie to watch. What we know about Nero even from secular sources tells us there will be some horrors. Luke is a key figure here because he is helping all who need medical attention because of the injuries, disease, and anarchy in the aftermath of Rome’s fire.
Unlike many other similar films, it does not emphasize the supernatural very much. As mentioned before, Luke heals because he is a doctor, not because he has a healing ministry. About the only miracles we see are the circumstances surrounding Paul’s conversion, the bright light, the voice of Jesus, the healing from his blindness.
I do not want to give too much away, but Paul: Apostle of Christ is dedicated in memory of those who have suffered persecution for their faith. It is a message of justice and hope, and presenting a very appealing image of what Christianity can be even in the worst of times.