Sunday, March 25, 2018

Movie Review - Paul: Apostle of Christ

Last week, I saw one of those phone app ads for a movie I had not heard of, called Paul: Apostle of Christ. That link takes you to the website, which told me that the movie focuses on Paul's last days before his execution in Rome. Early Church history has become my thing (pretty much since I started working on that Fourth Century Christianity site), so I immediately resolved to see it as soon as I could. It came out on Friday, and today (Saturday) was the first time I could see it. So, I met up with my cousin and we went to see it.

Let me begin by saying that my expectations for Christian art (movies, books, and music) are somewhat low. I think Christians get this mindset that it's more important to say the truth they're telling than show that truth and let the audience figure it out by watching the story. This sometimes leads to clunky writing and rather unimpressive finished products. 

However, the star of this movie, Jim Caviezel, was also in Passion of the Christ and The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), two very Christian movies with a lot of effort put into production and quality, so I was hopeful about this one. I also recognized several of the other actors as having been in high-quality productions, so I was very hopeful. To top it off, the trailer looked pretty fantastic. So, I had a middling to high expectation going into this movie. 

The crisis is essentially this: a large chunk of Rome has been destroyed in a fire, which the Emperor Nero (known for being a lunatic) blames on the Christians, and is persecuting them horribly for it. Because Paul is viewed as the leader of the Christians in Rome, he is arrested and held in a miserable cell. His friend Luke, a Greek physician, sneaks into Rome and into the prison to speak with Paul. Meanwhile, the Christians of Rome have hidden themselves away in a small section of the city, and are trying to decide if they should remain in Rome or go somewhere the persecution isn't as bad. At the same time, the prefect of the prison, Meletius (I think), has a daughter who is ill and is sacrificing to all the gods he can think of to get her well, while trying to wrestle with the fact that he has Paul and Luke pretty much in his grasp, and thinks he's angering his gods by not being cruel to them. Three main plot lines - Paul and Luke, the Christian community, and Meletius - and they work together fairly well to tell the story.

I'll begin by saying that the movie does not skimp on the brutality. I've known a lot of Christian art to give watered-down versions of the violence (to remain family friendly, I suppose), but this one really didn't. The opening scene has Luke sneaking into Rome, showing the streets being lit by burning bodies of Christians. In the first few seconds, you see a body charred beyond recognition as a lamp post in the city street. And later in the movie, they actually show the soldiers lighting a living Christian on fire on one of those lamp posts. They show whippings, they show a boy who was beaten to death in the streets, and they show little children walking into the arena to be fed to wild animals. They don't actually show the beating or the animals, but they leave you in no doubt about what happens. Then, just because that's not enough, they have flashbacks of when Paul was the one dishing out all the persecution. Remember that Paul began as Saul, the most brutal enemy of Christians? They show him murdering peaceful Christians, they show the stoning of Stephen, and they cut just short of showing him murdering a little girl. Several times, actually. 

There were also two very serious conflicts that I did not expect to see in this movie, but that I'm glad they showed. The first, and probably most profound, was the conflict of the Roman prefect, Meletius, as his daughter is dying and his wife blames him for it because she thinks his "kindness" to Paul and Luke (letting Luke visit Paul) is offending the Roman gods. Meletius is not a Roman, but is a soldier from the Roman provinces (Iberia, I assume) who has gained Roman citizenship through service in the Roman army. Interestingly enough, this sounds a lot like what happened in Rome back then, so the touch of history is nice. More importantly to the story, however, is that Meletius loves his wife (who is Roman, I think) and daughter, and both he and his wife think his doubt in the Roman gods is keeping them from curing his daughter. There's one very heartbreaking scene when his wife tells him how lonely she was when he was off on his campaigns, until their daughter was born; now that she's dying, the wife blames him for taking away all her joy. I honestly did not expect to see such detail given to a faith crisis, nor to show such painstaking care over why someone would feel bound to believe in pagan gods. But it was impressive. 

The second one, which I really did not expect to see, was the conflict between Nero and Rome. There are several Roman Christians in the community who are angry at Nero, not just for killing Christians, but for destroying Rome. Rome was never supposed to be an empire ruled by one power-hungry maniac, but a city ruled by senators elected by the citizens. That's what it was for most of its history - not exactly what we Americans would consider free or progressive, but quite free compared to Nero and the other Emperors. It's the Julius Caesar argument back again - Rome shouldn't have an Emperor. It goes against Rome. So, the Christians in Rome are struggling not just with the danger to their faith, but the danger to the city and the ideal they love. They love Rome. I admit to being completely startled to see that show up in the movie, but show up it does, and it works very well with the other conflicts. 

There were multiple other conflicts in this movie too, of course, that I did expect. One of the big ones was Luke struggling to show Christian love for the people that were, you know, murdering Christians. Then there was Paul's conflicts with his past as a persecutor of Christians, and the way they resolved that conflict made one of my favorite movie scenes ever. 

All this is to say that the movie isn't just preaching at you, but rather telling you a story. There are real conflicts, real challenges, and quite a bit of very seriously emotional scenes. I think it was a good idea to focus it around a few days, and tell the past in flashbacks. If you've ever read the Wives of King David series, you see they do nice job telling the story of King David through his wives' eyes, but the author covers years and years in just one book, which can make it kind of hard to keep track of one conflict or another. This story focuses all the events around just a few days, and draws on the past and on history as they pertain to the events in that story. I think that's a good way to sort out the facts and backstory that you need and the ones you don't. If I ever write a historical fiction novel, I'll have to remember to do that.

More than just having the story, though, the conflicts actually worked together well. Remember how in God's Not Dead, the connection between all the conflicts was that all the characters knew each other? The Cinderella complex conflict, the cancer conflict, the classroom conflict... they didn't have a lot to do with each other, and wouldn't have been in the same movie if the characters didn't know each other. This movie was not like that - all the conflicts played off each other to present the entire story. They were all connected around the same events. 

One complaint I have that I don't think anyone else has said yet, is that the mentions of Timothy and Titus were a little too glancing. Why were they there at all? Titus and Timothy have some fascinating stories, but they were only alluded to, and I honestly can't figure out why they were even mentioned. Unless there's a sequel in the works? (I don't know that I'd complain about that...) This may just be my partiality to Ephesus coming through (Timothy was pastor at Ephesus), but I rather wish they had either elaborated on Timothy and Titus, or just not mentioned them at all. 

Another complaint I have is this: they NEVER wrap up the Rome vs. Nero conflict. The characters struggling with this conflict just sort of disappear. Why? What happened to them? Where did they go? We never find out. The Rome vs. Nero conflict disappears with that, too. Blech! It was so promising at first.

Apparently everybody' else's big complaint is that it's not really about Paul - which is completely true. It's more about Luke and the Christian community in Rome. So, the title doesn't fit. I personally don't think this is a mark against the movie, but apparently a lot of other people do. 

Anyway, short version: it was a well-told story and a well-directed movie with a few minor ripples. Like I said, the movie isn't about Paul as much as the title is, which doesn't bother me, but be aware of that before you see it. What it is about, however, is well-told and dramatically interesting. I highly recommend seeing it, because the care they put into the movie was real and it pays off. 

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