I'm not usually one to write movie reviews, but I feel moved to write one about "Paul, Apostle of Christ" because it is being unfairly and predictably maligned by many critics. As I write this, it stands at 25% on Rotten Tomatoes, putting it well below such recent film classics as "Tomb Raider" and "A Wrinkle In Time." It is certainly much better than both. It is a good and thoughtful movie, and easily the second best Biblical film in many years (behind "The Passion of the Christ," of course).
It is not a perfect film. "Paul, Apostle of Christ" has one very noticeable problem: it is not really about Paul, Apostle of Christ. The story begins with the titular apostle as an old and mostly blind man, locked in a Roman prison, awaiting execution. I spent the first 45 minutes expecting the obligatory flashback to the great man's great adventures; his miraculous conversion, his five missionary journeys, the 50 or so cities he traveled to, his brushes with death, his various imprisonments. But the flashback came only briefly and it was over in moments. The story of Paul's actual life and ministry is still left on the table for some other filmmaker to tell. I hope someone does (and by someone I mean Mel Gibson). That would probably be a better movie. It could even be one of the best movies of all time, as it is one of the best stories of all time.
This movie is not one of the best of all time. But it is quite good. And these complaints aren't really complaints about the movie itself but complaints about how it was marketed and titled. Perhaps they should have called it "The Last Days of Paul." Or else they could have called it "Luke," because Luke, played by Jim Caviezel, is really the star of the film. He takes up the majority of the screen time as he bounces between Rome's community of persecuted Christians and his aging mentor in a dark dungeon. The physician and apostle counsels his Christian brothers and sisters, treats their wounded, and, in his conversations with Paul, exhorts him to tell his story so that an account can be made of his incredible life and works. This account eventually became the Acts of the Apostles.
By the time the film starts, Nero, the deranged emperor of Rome, has already set fire to half the city and blamed it on the followers of "The Way." As a result, Christians are being brutally slaughtered. Despite the film's PG-13 rating, it is pretty unsparing in depicting these atrocities, or at least their aftermath. The very first scene takes place on a street lit by the burning corpses of crucified Christians. Later we see a mother covered in the blood of her murdered infant, a young boy lying lifeless on a table after being beaten to death, a crucified man watching in terror as Roman soldiers prepare to burn him alive, and so on. One of the most powerful scenes shows Luke in a prison cell, comforting a group of Christians who are about to be eaten by lions. The exchange is brief but profound, and becomes even more moving as the camera pans across the faces of the doomed prisoners and settles finally on the face of a young girl.
There is nothing gratuitous or gory. In fact you could make the argument that they should have embraced the R and really shown us the plight of these Christians in all of its gruesomeness. But what they do show is appropriately startling, affecting, and restrained enough to make the film suitable for kids. All in all, the viewer is made to understand just what these early Christians were up against. And that is really the point of the story, in the end. The monumental figure of Paul fades into the background for much of the movie as the terrified but brave community of believers debate how they should respond to this tyranny. Should they flee the city? Should they stay and die? Should they take up arms and revolt? These are deep questions, and the movie seems to want us to ask an even deeper question of ourselves: what would we do?
A movie about the persecution of Christians will never be a critical darling. It is not politically correct to show Christians as the victims of violent oppression, even though Christianity was born in violent oppression and has endured it relentlessly ever since. Its founder was an obscure carpenter who was brutally executed only three years into his public ministry. Its early apostles and evangelists were unimpressive, entirely average men who carried the carpenter's message in defiance of government authorities and religious leaders, and died for it. Its disciples embraced a new way of life that would only lead to suffering and poverty and death. And for 300 years, that is all that this strange new religion would do for its converts in this life: impoverish them and kill them.
And yet it survived. It spread. It conquered. How is that possible? It defies all explanation. It seems almost like a miracle. Almost like a Divine plan. Almost like Christianity triumphed for one simple reason: it is true.
That, I think, is the real message in "Paul, Apostle of Christ." And it is why most movie critics will find a reason to dislike it. And it is why you should see it anyway.