The Blood of the Martyrs: A Review of "Paul, Apostle of Christ"

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Many movie critics say the faith-based film genre is undergoing a crisis in contemporary cinema, with films favoring sentimental and predictable stories along with overly dramatic—often unconvincing—acting. Movies are lacking, overall, in substance and prevailing in artifice.

These critics are not alone in this view; luckily for them, Jesus Himself (or rather the actor who played Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ"), agrees.

Andrew Hyatt would have much to gain for his film if he used the Latin and Greek languages instead of the vernacular English.

“So much of the time that I see these faith-based films they’re so full of saccharine… I can’t handle that much sugar in my coffee, there is no bitterness,” said Jim Caviezel recently in an interview with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN. Playing Saint Luke in the recently released "Paul, Apostle of Christ," Caviezel believes this new movie transcends the rest of the faith-based cinematic genre.

Written and directed by Andrew Hyatt, "Paul, Apostle of Christ" is a thoughtfully filmed movie without much syrup, providing viewers with a fairly authentic snapshot of the early Roman-Christian community and the persecution they faced from the Roman authorities conducted by the emperor Nero.

The movie (though shot in Malta) is set in Rome around 67 AD during the latter days of Saint Paul’s life. For most of the film the story shifts—with equal attention—between the lives of Paul, Luke, the Prefect Mauritius, and the Christian community.

Awaiting his execution at Mamertine prison, the Apostle Paul (James Faulkner) suffers from physical and spiritual pain as he experiences the ordeal of underground imprisonment. He is often subject to remorseful recollections over his past involvement in killing the apostle Stephen--rendered cinematically by brief flashbacks shown in slow motion. Paul is visited only by Roman prison guards and a close acquaintance, namely, Luke the physician and evangelist.

Finding it essential to survive the surrounding madness, Luke seeks consolation and wisdom from Paul (who has plenty to give) in order to remain conscious of the heavenly end goal in Christ. Through his conversations with Paul he is inspired to compose the book of Acts.

Meanwhile, the Roman Christian community meets secretly. They are visited often by Luke who assists them monetarily and informs them about the status of Paul. Headed by a man named Aquilla (John Lynch), they experience a communal crisis due to the ongoing persecution that has taken many lives from their company, raising a series of intense questions. Should they retaliate against their oppressor, endure the persecution or escape to Ephesus?

Mauritius (Olivier Martinez), the prefect in charge of the prison holding Paul captive, finds the phenomenon of Christianity displeasing and dangerous, though his curiosity about the sage prisoner’s zealous faith comes to light as he watches his infirm daughter suffer from a potentially fatal illness. His sacrifices to Roman gods prove inefficacious in restoring the health of his daughter.  

A particularly powerful scene finds Luke making his way through the Roman streets early in the morning, stumbling upon the execution process of a Christian prepared to be burnt alive. Taken aback after viewing this accidentally, Luke steps out of sight and hides behind a wall. Shrieks from the martyred Christian together with a close up of Luke’s horrified eyes give this scene its power.

“This evil makes no sense to me,” Luke later says to the Christian community, relating to them what he had seen.

Unexpectedly, this community takes pride in being Roman, recognizing that the wickedness of the emperor and his violent actions do not represent the city (or idea) of Rome.

“We were Romans before we were Christian,” says a patriotic woman during a communal rapport over this issue.

“Nero is responsible, not Rome,” says Cassius (Alessandro Sperduti), a fiery young Roman Christian, at the same debate. He would prefer to handle the oppressors by way of reciprocation, that is, violently.

This is a film packed with visual movement. The cinematographer, Geraldo Madrazo, uses handheld camera (or shaky-cam) accompanied by over and behind the shoulder shots to place the filmgoer within the harsh world of Neronian Rome as Luke and other Christians navigate the city stealthily.

For the first portion of the film, the lighting is often dark due to prison and nighttime scenes galore. The second half features a more illuminated cinematography in light of a shift in plot. In daytime scenes Paul’s underground cell is mostly engulfed in black; though beams of light often shine through the ceiling’s portal wrapping the saintly Apostle in gold, foreshadowing his eternal reward and symbolically conveying him as light amongst a world of darkness.  

Madrazo also uses the extreme close up—sparingly, but effectively—throughout the film, notably during Paul’s recollection of Stephen’s stoning as the viewer is given an extreme close up of the martyred Apostle’s blood as it accumulates into a puddle on the beige ground.

A film serving as the golden mean between romanticizing the violent realities of persecution or turning them into dismal occasions devoid of any hope.

Writer-director Andrew Hyatt would have much to gain for his film if he used the Latin and Greek languages instead of the vernacular English (similarly to Mel Gibson in The Passion)  to create a more realistic Roman environment.

However, the movie being shot in Malta, along with the costumery, and the Mediterranean composition of many of the actors, assist greatly in accomplishing an accurate visual depiction of this time period. Although helpful, this sort of “realisticness” should not be stressed too much in historical cinema.

Despite its many good parts, "Paul, Apostle of Christ" does leave its audience a bit wanting. The title suggests a biopic, or a film featuring Paul as the chief-most character; one may change the title and it could be just as much a film about the persecuted Christians in Rome, or even about Luke, given their equally allotted screen time.

By the end one does not feel attached to Faulkner’s portrayal of the Apostle, unable to make a lasting impression worthy of an incomparable figure such as Paul. Though, laudibly, he does manage to give a humble, serene, and comforting depiction of the Apostle whose constant hopefulness in Christ becomes finally realized by the movie’s end when Paul sees Christ approaching him from afar… a few moments pass… then an old-fashioned fade to black as he passes into the next life.

If one is looking to watch a religious movie—in light of the Paschal season—without the syrupiness often accompanying films in the faith-based genre,  "Paul, Apostle of Christ" is a must see, a film serving as the golden mean between romanticizing the violent realities of persecution or turning them into dismal occasions devoid of any hope.