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A letter to moviegoers on the arrival of a faith-based film about Paul

I, Jacob, a web producer and sometimes film reviewer for the Austin American-Statesman, tasked with writing a review of the latest faith-based film to hit theaters this year, “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” a release from Sony Affirm starring Jim Caviezel and James Faulkner:

To all in Austin (and beyond) who are reading this review:

Grace and thanks be upon you, and thank you for entertaining this rhetorical exercise.

I long to write to you so that I may impart some film criticism for your discernment, as I, a young, recently married 20-something with bills to pay, fully know that ticket prices are outrageously expensive, and am further aware that those of you reading this who may be of the Christian faith might be wondering, “Is this film biblically accurate? Is it edifying? Is it true? Is it noble? Is it right? Is it pure?”

The short answer, dear brothers (and sisters! They’re important in the church too! This movie even gives some of them speaking role!) is this:

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This film is ambitious and tries to convey deep messages about forgiveness, church revolution and the need for words to live on long after the people who spoke them are gone.

It tries mightily to achieve a balance among all of the above themes but lacks cohesion, and at times it is unclear who this film was made for.

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But I ask you to decide for yourself, dear filmgoing community. Is this film meant to be a straightforward adaptation of how the Christian Holy Bible’s Acts of the Apostles came to be written, with a monkey wrench about the veracity of biblical inerrancy thrown in? Or is it meant to be an entry point for non-Christians to see the level of forgiveness Christians are called to bestow upon those who hate them?

I am genuinely asking, because I have turned this film over and over in my mind in the week or so since I viewed it, and I have come up short.

Oh, as a film, it’s competent enough, which is much more than can be said about many faith-based films in 2018, the year of Our Lord. The cinematography from DP Gerardo Madrazo highlights Luke (Caviezel) and Paul (Faulkner) with some of the only light in an otherwise dark world. It was shot on location in Malta, and it looks gorgeous.

The performances, especially Olivier Martinez as the centurion Mauritius, are appropriately theatrical. Faulkner’s quiet, contemplative Paul is exactly what one would expect the old, grizzled evangelist to look and sound like in his final days (if he were white and spoke the Queen’s English, of course). There’s a nice casting touch where a different actor plays Saul of Tarsus, to further signify Paul’s conversion.

Caviezel delivers the second great biblical performance of his career — you’ll remember he portrayed Jesus of Nazareth in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” This film is much less violent but still has a lot of blood for a PG-13.

James Faulkner’s Paul reflects on his life in “Paul, Apostle of Christ.” Contributed by CTMG (American-Statesman Staff)

Oh, the plot. Dear brothers and sisters, I almost forgot. Probably because the film almost forgets about that, too, with all the juggling acts it attempts. For such high stakes, the film moves at a lackadaisical pace. Probably because the ending doesn’t matter much here, either.

Anyway, you know the story of Paul, right, brothers and sisters? Former persecutor of Christians? The guy who stoned Stephen, the first modern martyr of the church? The guy who had his conversion on the road to Damascus after he was struck blind and Jesus spoke to him? Well, “Paul, Apostle of Christ” is about all the stuff that happened way after all that.

“Paul, Apostle of Christ” is about the final days of the Apostle Paul, where he is awaiting trial in Rome for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Christians of Rome are being set on fire and used as candles in the streets. Emperor Nero is rounding up Christians and feeding them to lions in his circus.

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In prison, Paul is taking an account of his life. He still feels guilt over what he did to early Christians as Saul of Tarsus, before his conversion. We know this because he tells us. There is not a lot of subtlety here. A flashback literally shows blood on Saul’s hands. For those filmgoers who might not know about the stoning of Stephen, that same flashback does nothing to shed light on the story; it’s just meant to be another guy from Paul’s past.

The people are losing hope, fighting among themselves. Should they stay and help the widows and orphans and those in need? Or should they flee and start the church up somewhere else?

These are the questions on the mind of early church leaders Aquila (John Lynch) and Priscilla (Joanne Whalley) when Luke shows up to attend to Paul in prison. (Questions that, it seems, do not matter in the end.)

Luke, the physician, is understood by Christian tradition to have been the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.

In the Bible, Acts is a free-flowing series of vignettes meant to show how the early church was established. It’s full of some amazing anecdotes, whether or not you believe in the Christian faith. There are resurrections, healings, Jesus’ ascension to heaven, the Pentecost.

This movie, which is in part about the writing of that book, does not inspire awe. It cherry-picks history and relies on apocrypha for one of its subplots involving the miraculous healing of a Roman centurion’s daughter. This is meant to highlight the film’s central theme of forgiveness. It feels more like a stumbling block for those who might expect a literal interpretation of the book of Acts.

But, brothers and sisters, does this mean the film is entirely without merit? By no means!

In fact, “Paul, Apostle of Christ” showcases one of the most beautiful examples of what a church should be. That infighting I mentioned earlier in this epistle (er, review) was born out of a desire from this small Christian community to both help the widows and the sick in their community (as was their mission) and stay alive and avoid Nero’s Circus.

Watching the very real, very immediate persecution these early church leaders faced made me pause to think about just how any “persecution” Christians in America face today pales in comparison.

But in the end, what the film centers on as its central message — forgiveness in the face of persecution — lands with about as much resonance as a Sunday School lesson. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that if you’ve seen “God’s Not Dead” and you know how lightly that film treats the death of a major character in its last five minutes, you know how this film handles most of the plots that deal with death. For a film dedicated to “all who have been persecuted for their faith,” the last five minutes feel frivolous.

In the end, dear brothers and sisters, “Paul, Apostle of Christ” is a well-shot, well-acted biblical epic that can’t figure out what tone it wants to take and desperately wants to make a larger impact. But if you are truly looking for a faith-based film to see, it does (maybe unintentionally) offer some great discussion starters about biblical narratives and church life.

I leave you in peace and wish you happy moviegoing experiences,

Jacob Harris of Austin

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