Enlivening the Dialogue
Paul, Apostle of Christ, 2018. Directed by Andrew Hyatt.
Paul, Apostle of Christ, producer T.J. Berden reflects in an interview, “Here’s a man, Paul, who went from being the ISIS of today to becoming the leader of a church community.” Berden goes on to ask, “Do we really think that’s possible today? That a person can change?” I thought something similar: is it really think possible today, to produce a low action movie of an old Bible character’s last days in an ancient prison? If so, would it be good or even entertaining? Furthermore, would anyone other than movie critics and “church people” want to come to see it?
Upon its release on March 23, 2018, Paul, Apostle of Christ, ranked number 9 in the weekly box office and grossed a little more than 8 million dollars in its opening week, earning almost a quarter of the number 1 ranking movie for that week, sci-fi action movie Pacific Rim Uprising. Not bad, especially when you compare the two aesthetics: Pacific Rim Uprising, the newest installment of legendary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s critically acclaimed, big budget sci-fi monster movies, and Paul, Apostle of Christ, a PG-13 bible-based screenplay of Paul’s last days in the Mamertine prison. Deemed as a threat to the Roman Empire by Nero, Paul awaits execution and is visited by Luke, the evangelist, who endeavors to capture “wisdom” from Paul to bring back to persecuted and discouraged Christian communities in Rome. In doing so, Luke begins to write the Acts of the Apostles. Paul and Luke also interact with Mauritius, prefect of the Mamertine Prison, and through these necessary routine exchanges between prisoner, prisoner’s visitor, and prison guard, we as viewers are privy not so much to action as dialogue. A lot of dialogue. More specifically, scripturally based dialogue, much of which is regularly delivered from pulpits worldwide throughout the liturgical year. There is seemingly nothing new to this film or the dialogue it offers. Nothing new that is, until we as movie-goers understand ourselves as invited into the discussion.
With regard to what we are to do with this film’s dialogue, how we are apply it to our own lives, Paul, Apostle of Christ invites us to think of the things of Christ in a cocktail casual sort of way and in this case, that’s not a bad thing. To enter into this movie, one does not have to put on theological knowledge, as one may want to when approaching a film such as Martin Scorsese’s Silence. On the other hand, kicking back in flip-flops and letting the film’s answers come to you as they do in Jon Gunn’s The Case for Christ might not be the most effective dress code either. Instead, I would suggest that you come see this movie just as you are: whether you are a superstar daily Mass-goer, someone who is more of the Easter and Christmas attendee type, or vacillate in between. Dress your mind to expect a true and good encounter. Allow the chance to experience what I think is the success of Paul, Apostle of Christ: the ability to take a man we’ve shelved away as a long dead saint and make him alive, human, and relatable.
Film, unlike the written word, engages us by sight and sound. Being led along by these two faculties allows us to follow this movie in simulated real-time. In Paul, Apostle of Christ we are dropped into the middle Nero’s Rome, circa 67, AD. Filmed in Malta, the movie takes us through skillfully panned shots of recreated Ancient Rome and its dark and dirty alleys. We see and hear horror when the camera leaves us in corners lit up only by human Roman Candles. Through the superb acting of Joanne Whalley and John Lynch, we empathize with Priscilla and Aquila, and the rest of their early Christian community. We are pierced by their screams of agony when we witness children who are slain and left dead at the door of their hideaway; listen to their growing unease at being hunted; face with them the life or death decision to leave or stay in Rome; see their desperation to know what choices Christ would want them to make. We feel nauseous at the sight of spilled blood: the blood that drips slowly from Stephen’s face and pools in the gray dirt as Saul leads his stoning; the sacrificial blood that Mauritius drains from the head of a duck and pours by the bowlful over his head in pagan worship to his gods hoping to obtain healing for his sick daughter; the drips of blood soaked up by a sponge from Paul’s back as Luke visits and comforts his broken-bodied friend. These sights and sounds create the stage upon which Luke and Paul exchange words of doubt, words of encouragement, words of Christ - words of scripture.
These words become our words. We wonder what to say because, though we have seen good and miraculous things, we are anxious at the evil that surrounds us. We trip up in our prayer and discernment and sometimes, like Cassius, we think we know Christ and what He would do, feeling justified in our anger and pride. We doubt, deeply. We are afraid and despair. Like Paul, we feel it when we are struck down, dumb and blind. And though we know that faith is not about feeling, in these moments of sin we get a chance to feel grace. Perhaps we even feel - if only for a moment - the exhilaration of the genuine reality that, in Christ, a human heart can change.
The last scenes of Paul, Apostle of Christ are simply rendered and they are beautiful. We see Paul in two planes of existence. On one plane he is walking towards the guillotine, chained, old, limping. On the other he is walking towards an open valley where Stephen and others he persecuted and killed are awaiting him with the risen Christ, arms open and ready to receive. Along with his labored, never-ending steps of conversion, we hear Paul’s words as documented in his letters to Timothy: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). With these words the film acknowledges that the dialogues of humanity begin with God, taking no glory in answers found through the self. Rather, Paul, Apostle of Christ refreshes the dialogue of faith for anyone willing to listen: as Paul instructs Luke his evangelist, the point is not to fix faith, but rather to inspire it.
Jasmine Kuzner holds an MFA from the University of Maryland at College Park. She is a wife and a mother to two beautiful and quick-witted children.