Hollywood, when it goes into the realms of History and Faith, often does justice to neither, getting the History wrong and making a complete hash of the presentation of religious faith on the screen. I am pleased to report that Paul: Apostle of Christ defies this usual litany of failure. My review is below, and the usual caveat as to spoilers applies:
The film is set in Rome in 64 AD. The Great Fire is raging and the Emperor Nero is having Christians in Rome hunted like animals, blaming them for the fire that many of his subjects think that he, their mad, murderous Emperor, had deliberately set himself. Christians were being torn to bits by wild animals for the amusement of the crowds in Nero’s Circus, located in the modern Vatican City. Christians were set aflame as human torches to light the night. The Roman historian Tacitus, completely unsympathetic to Christians, described what happened:
“Therefore, to stop the rumor [that he had set Rome on fire], he [Emperor Nero] falsely charged with guilt, and punished with the most fearful tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were [generally] hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of that name, was put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, in the reign of Tiberius, but the pernicious superstition – repressed for a time, broke out yet again, not only through Judea, – where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, whither all things horrible and disgraceful flow from all quarters, as to a common receptacle, and where they are encouraged. Accordingly first those were arrested who confessed they were Christians; next on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of “hating the human race.”
In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights. Nero offered his own garden players for the spectacle, and exhibited a Circensian game, indiscriminately mingling with the common people in the dress of a charioteer, or else standing in his chariot. For this cause a feeling of compassion arose towards the sufferers, though guilty and deserving of exemplary capital punishment, because they seemed not to be cut off for the public good, but were victims of the ferocity of one man.”
Into this Hell on Earth comes Luke the Physician, a former companion of Paul, who has traveled to Rome to visit his old colleague, imprisoned in the Mamertine Prison, and to take down his memories of his life as a missionary for Christ. Luke first stops by the Roman Christian community, led by the husband and wife team of Aquila and Priscilla, portrayed by John Lynch and Joanne Whalley, also old friends of Paul. These Christians have gathered together in hiding, terrified of the persecution which has already claimed many of their friends, relatives, husbands, wives and children. They are divided between those who want to leave Rome and those, native Romans, who want to stay. These are not perfect Christians, eager martyrs to be, but badly frightened men and women who quarrel and constantly worry about what fresh disasters will bring. Luke helps calm them, and brings money to them from collections taken for their relief by other Christian communities. Luke hopes that his conversations with Paul will give him some insight into what the Christians in Rome should do next. James Caviezel, he of Passion of the Christ fame, portrays Luke. Caviezel has great charisma and a powerful screen presence that hearkens back to the screen stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He makes Luke a very human figure, but also clearly a hero and a leader who the people around him can trust, even as he quietly has doubts about the course which should be pursued.
In Mamertine Prison Luke visits Paul, portrayed by veteran English actor James Faulkner. This is a tired Paul, a man who knows he has almost completed his race, but who understands that until his death he still has tasks to perform for Christ. Paul and Luke are old friends, and they kid each other, Luke referring to Paul as Old Man. Paul remembers their many trips from town to town spreading the word of Christ, exposed to all weather, often wet and miserable. He laughingly recalls the hideous, to Paul, Greek lullabies by which Luke would sing himself to sleep, and they both laugh when they remember the loud snores of Peter. Paul sums up those times as having been miserable days, and how he misses them.
As for the Christian community in Rome, Paul has no advice other than that they most hold fast to the teachings of Christ. Throughout the film Luke will visit Paul, and during these visits there will be flashbacks to Paul’s time as Saul, a fierce persecutor of Christians, and the miracle by which Christ called Paul to His service. Interspersed in his conversations with Luke, we hear echoes from Paul of what he has written in the Epistles. This is skillfully done, and it is startling to hear these nuggets of Scripture turn up in what seemed to be a commonplace conversation.
One of the major characters of the film is the prison Prefect (commander) Mauritius, portrayed by French actor Olivier Martinez. After interviewing Luke and determining that his mission is to take down the words of Paul, and having had read some of what Luke has written, he allows him to continue his visits. Mauritius reminds him that if a prisoner escapes from Mamerine Prison the lives of Mauritius and his garrison will be forfeit, and thus while he is Prefect there will be no escapes.
One of the major themes of the movie is that Christians must repay evil with good.
I believe this with all the fiber of my being, although what the good is that must be paid is highly dependent upon the circumstances of the situation, a quandary that the film does not explore. After a Christian boy is beaten to death by Roman soldiers, some of the younger Christian men are angered and what to repay death with death. Luke stands against them and says that love is the only way. However, in his next visit to Paul he tells him about this and states that the does not blame the young men, and that their rage against the terrible evil that Nero represents is completely understandable. Paul in reply begins to talk about love, and the words that he utters are quite familiar:
I won’t reveal the rest of the plot, except for this: shortly before his execution Paul talks to Mauritius and explains to him that all of existence is like a great and boundless sea. Humans at birth cup their hands in the sea and for the rest of their life existence is slipping through their fingers. For Christians however, through Christ, they are part of the entire sea, even after death. A great film that carries on the timeless message of Christ.