I don’t often cry at movies. I bawled as a kid watching Old Yeller (and I’ve never watched it since, as a result). I get a little misty when Bubba dies by that river in Vietnam in Forrest Gump, or when Red finds Andy on the beach at the end of The Shawshank Redemption, or when Harry Bailey says at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, “To my brother George, the richest man in town!” But now, I must add Paul: Apostle of Christ to the list. I found the ending of this movie one of the most emotionally powerful things I’ve ever seen.
I must admit, I don’t like most movies made for the “faith-based audience.” They tend to fall into one of two categories: Cheaply made films that are more like extended sermons than art, or big-budget biblical epics with A-list stars and great production values that play fast and loose with the stories of Scripture (Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings are a couple recent examples). I feel a little guilty, but I rarely go see any of these, especially the ones in the former category. Even if I agree with the message, I want to be entertained for my $10 (minus the cost of popcorn). I made an exception for Paul, and I’m glad I did.
The story is set in 67 AD, during the reign of mad Emperor Nero, as Christians in Rome are being thrown to the lions or burned as torches to light the city streets. Paul is in a dungeon awaiting his execution at Nero’s hands; the cruel Caesar has scapegoated Christians for the recent fire in the city, and since Paul is the most famous Christian of all, he must die. The small Christian community in Rome is struggling to survive this time of desperate persecution. Priscilla and Aquila, now leading the church in Paul’s absence, must decide whether to leave the city for safer environs, or weather the storm, while also trying to pacify the faction of young men who would very much like to take up arms against their oppressors. Paul’s old traveling partner Luke arrives in Rome to visit the prison, hoping to write down the apostle’s life story while there is still time. Meanwhile, the prefect of the prison has a daughter dying of a mysterious illness. He wonders if perhaps killing a few more Christians (including this Greek physician Luke) would persuade the gods to heal her.
The performances are excellent. I was not familiar with James Faulkner, who plays Paul (If I had watched Downton Abbey with my wife, I would have seen him before), but I am now a fan. He plays Paul as a weary man, old before his time from years of deprivation, hard travel, and physical abuse, but whose worst torments are the dreams in which he sees the faces of Christians he once persecuted. The movie speculates that it is these dreams which were Paul’s true “thorn in the flesh” (1 Corinthians 12:7-9), a theory I had never heard before. Faulkner’s Paul may be one step from death, but he has lost none of his devotion to Christ. Much of his dialogue is lifted directly from his biblical letters; the movie assumes Paul lived out these words and repeated them often, instead of simply writing them once on a page. Jim Caviezel plays Luke. I smiled when I first saw his short, decidedly non-biblical-epic hairstyle; I assume they made that choice so we wouldn’t think he was playing Jesus again. But it didn’t take long for me to get lost in his performance, accepting him as a man who has already written a Gospel, a man who deeply admires Paul, but who struggles with the idea of possibly dying for Jesus. The relationship between these two men is the heart of the movie, while the other two subplots–the prefect and his daughter, and the struggling Roman Christians–lend some suspense to the film.
There are some slow moments, and a few clunky lines of dialogue (“With all this persecution, what will you do?”). I had a minor quibble with the flashback that shows Paul’s encounter with Ananias (why didn’t they show scales falling from his eyes?). But it was so rewarding to watch a movie that took Scripture seriously AND was a well made, well-acted film. And then that ending came, and hit me like a ton of bricks…
See it. You’ll thank me.