“Paul, Apostle of Christ” depicts the extraordinary faith of ordinary people

Without being didactic or heavy-handed, the movie ably depicts the centrality of the Resurrection in the thought and life of St. Paul.

Jim Caviezel plays the Evangelist Luke and James Faulkners is the Apostle Paul in "Paul, Apostle of Christ", coming to theaters on March 23rd. (Image: www.paulmovie.com | © CTMB0

The Apostle Paul, writes Anglican scholar N.T. Wright in his new biography of the most famous and widely discussed convert to Christianity,

 might dispute the suggestion that he himself changed the world; Jesus, he would have said, had already done that. But what he said about Jesus, and about God, the world, and what it means to be genuinely human, was creative and compelling—and controversial, in his own day and ever after. Nothing would ever be quite the same again.

Paul’s writings make up just eighty or so pages, which Wright notes is less than any solitary dialogue by Plato or treatise by Aristotle. Why, then, have countless books, articles, and monographs been written about Paul’s life, epistles, and thought? While the new movie Paul, Apostle of Christ does not try to answer that question, it provides a hint of an answer while indicating, in a rather low-key but often compelling way, why Paul is just as challenging and, yes, relevant as he was nearly two thousand years ago.

To the credit of the writer and director Andrew Wyatt, the film does not aim to be epic or even, in many ways, intensely dramatic. This has been a point of criticism in some reviews; I suggest they are missing the point, which is to depict the daily struggles of an extraordinary man among ordinary people living a radical faith in a death-dealing, soul-crushing culture—specifically, the city of Rome in the year A.D. 67, not too long after the crazed emperor Nero had accused the Christians of starting the great fire of Rome. Much has been made, quite rightly, about the film’s focus on the persecution of Roman Christians under Nero, which is related, in some ways, to the very real persecution of Christians today, especially at the hand of various radical Islamic groups and movements. (The movie is dedicated “to all who have been persecuted for their faith”.)

But to focus on this alone would miss a key point made early in the film by Priscilla (Joanne Whalley), who tells the evangelist Luke (Jim Caviezel), “We are the only light left in this city!” She says so in the midst of a struggling group of first generation Christians who are frightened, perplexed, and even doubting. Wyatt and crew, fronted by the strong acting of Caviezel and James Faulkner (Paul), choose to focus on the small details and subtle struggles, emphasizing how the daily choice to follow Christ must be rooted in an abiding, even struggling, faith in the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. When I spoke to Wyatt recently about the film, I asked him if it was fair to say it is a more intimate drama aimed at capturing the inner struggles of both Christians and non-Christians in ancient Rome. That’s very fair,” he replied, “Not to downplay what others [filmmakers] are trying. But epics can lose the humanity. In this film, you do get to know the personal struggle of what these people are dealing with.”

Not that the film is devoid of drama or tension. The brutality of Roman rule is depicted efficiently and effectively; the general callousness toward women and children is contrasted with the care and charity shown by the Christians. Paul, who is in chains in Mamertine Prison, is not just weary, but beaten down in every possible sense. His isolation can be heard in his own words, in his second letter to Timothy: “Luke alone is with me” (2 Tim 4:11). That simple line, in fact, was an inspiration for the film, which quotes heavily from Paul’s writings, mostly to strong and even powerful effect. In short, life in the ancient Roman Empire was usually short, often ugly, and occasionally hellish.

One of the key narratives in the film involves Mauritius, the Roman prefect in charge of Mamertine, whose young daughter is near death due to a mysterious illness. Mauritius repeatedly beseeches the gods for aid, but to no avail. His wife, Irenica (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), believes that his uncharacteristic generosity toward Paul and Luke may be the cause for silence from the heavens. When Paul suggests the prefect have the physician Luke look at his daughter, the Roman scoffs, “I will not anger the gods by bringing a Christian to my home.” All indications point to a dramatic and miraculous resolution; thankfully, the film stays the course, emphasizing again how faith and “ordinary” life are not only compatible but completely sympatico.

Without being didactic or heavy-handed, the movie ably depicts the centrality of the Resurrection in the thought and life of Paul, not only through an effective flashback to his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, but also in an exchange with Mauritius that echoes contemporary debates. “You keep saying truth, truth”, says Mauritius sarcastically to the two Christian leaders, as a sort of mimicry of Pilate before Christ. “But it is only truth according to you.” Mauritius shows himself to be as much a post-modern relativist as an ancient pagan, desperately appealing to dead gods while smirking at the startling, revolutionary faith of men and women who are willing to die for a mysterious Jewish rabbi.

“Christ who is Truth rose from the dead,” replies Luke, “but there are many who still do not believe.” Paul adds: “Men do not die for things they doubt. … It does not take an intelligent man to look around and see that the world is missing something.” The world still groans, longing for the fullness of Truth (cf. Rom 8:22), but far too many still refuse to look into the empty tomb or to contemplate the simple question: why would the followers of The Way willingly suffer and die for Christ unless there really was something to the Christian belief in the Resurrection?

Nothing would ever be quite the same again. Which bring me back to the persecution of the early Christians. Why were they so often persecuted, maligned, and even executed? In large part, it was because of who they refused to worship and Who they insisted on worshiping; it was because of their renunciation of the empire and their embrace of the Kingdom. As Bishop Robert Barron has emphasized:

From the beginning of his public work, Jesus is opposed, often violently, and that opposition culminates in his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman governor, who with delicious irony places on the cross a sign indicating that Jesus is king: “This is the King of the Jews.” The baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and the criminal dying on a cross are both meant as a taunt, a challenge, a turning upside down of our expectations.

This was indeed subversive. The Romans were fine with the Christians worshiping Jesus, as long as they also worshiped the Roman gods. As the New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado puts it in Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2017),

the key neuralgic issue between Christians and their critics and opponents in those early centuries was worship … [The] pagans demanded specifically that Christians should worship the traditional gods. Recall that pagans such as Celsus were willing to tolerate Christians and their their other various objectionable features, if only they would worship the traditional gods. But Christians were noted as typically refusing to do so, declaring that they worshiped only the one biblical deity and, still more offensively, that everyone ought to do likewise.

As Hurtado goes on to argue, this was for both Christians and pagans a deeply religious issue, for both recognized that their specific beliefs were in direct conflict with one another, especially since for the early Christians the “key concern of fidelity to the one true God [was] set over against what they saw as the the many false and unworthy deities of the day.”

This, for me, is a core strength of Paul, Apostle of Christ, for it depicts, in a compelling and artistically satisfying way, the contrast between empty faith in the pagan emperor and joyful faith in Jesus Christ, “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20).  It is important to remember those who are persecuted; it is just as important that we know why and for Whom they are persecuted. “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:13-14).


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About Carl E. Olson 1113 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

24 Comments

  1. Speaking of “joyful faith” — in interviews, Jim Caviezel generally comes off as utterly miserable. Every word is like pulling teeth; he rarely laughs or even smiles. Virtually every other movie star known to me appears consistently happy and relaxed, quick to joke and filled with energy. What average viewer, seeing that, would think Christianity has anything to offer? The guy who played Jesus looks worse off by a mile than the guy who plays Thor.

    This sort of connects with my eternal complaint that Christian movies are lame. I skipped Paul: Apostle of Christ this weekend in favor of The Death of Stalin, which was dazzling and memorable. 99 times out of 100, non-Christian movies beat ours. I’ve felt for years that we need a serious reboot of SOMETHING on our side of this conflict. I’m not sure what; but we’re not making headway here…

    • Curious what examples you are thinking of when you mention “serious reboot of somethingon our side of this conflict.” Are you meaning something previous made or a new story altogether? Something like a story about Maximilian Kolbe, for instance?

      • I don’t mean “reboot” in the sense of a specific project, but a reboot of Christians’ general way of being regatding entertainment: constantly making poorly conceived, ill-attended, cinematically bland films, which pale next to the skill and passion that characterize many non-Christian movies. I can’t remember the last time I saw a great Christian film

        • Warner: I would suggest that ‘The Passion of the Christ’ was a great Christian movie. Caviezel portrayed Christ beautifully, with strength of character, presence, and a deep commitment to the suffering of Jesus. I understand and agree with your comments about bland Christian movies, but ‘The Passion’ was not one of them.

          Re. Caviezel’s dour evangelization: I suggest that he finds the state of the world to be discouraging and the ‘happy happy joy joy’ way is just not him. His faith, though, is very real – and inspiring to many.

          • I was not as big a fan of The Passion as many; but even granting your point, it was 14 years ago. That’s a long dry spell! And this very article states that Paul: Apostle of Christ shows ” joyful faith” in Jesus. “Joyful” is one of the last words I would use to describe Jim Caviezel. While he may inspire many, my point is that those outside of Christianity might well see him as far more dour than any other actor out there, and he might cause a sort of reverse- evangelization as a result…

          • If you think Mr. Caviezel isn’t joyful, you should have met St. Jerome. Ahem. Well, my review of the movie is based on having seen the movie. I stand by my description, especially since I think authentic joy is best demonstrated in emotional ecstasy, but in firm and vibrant faith, which is what the film depicts quite well. But, backing up a bit, I’m a bit perplexed by your description of Mr. Caviezel’s presence or demeanor in interviews. I’ve only seen 3 or 4, but he comes across to me as a thoughtful, somewhat stoic man who speaks directly and clearly about his faith and related matters. See, for example, this recent EWTN interview with him about the Paul movie.

        • Warner there are two I recommend if they haven’t already failed the test. The Power and the Glory 1940 based on Graham Greene’s novel, and The Mission 1986 based on an uncredited source book “The Lost Cities of Paraguay” by Father C. J. McNaspy, who gives account of a true historical event, a Spanish Jesuit mission among the Guarani Indians in S America destroyed by slave trading Portugal permitted in a political compromise made by a Catholic prelate.

          • An Addendum: Warner the Graham Greene novel The Power and the Glory 1940 was made a film titled The Fugitive (1947) directed by John Ford screenplay by Dudley Nichols starring Henry Fonda, Dolores del Rio, Pedro Armendáriz.

    • Perhaps try watching Jim Caveziel’s lectures on You Tube where he captivates with his electric demonstration of his Christian faith and belief. Maybe he is more compelling when he speaks to youth groups and on Christian television than a regular interview. I find his faith contageous.

    • If you haven’t seen it, I recommend the Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” Ross Douthat called it the best Catholic movie of the decade – and it was made by two Jewish guys!

    • Two American Franciscan friars who were studying graduate-level spirituality in Rome wanted to go to a restaurant for dinner. An Italian friar wanted to tag along and asked to accompany them. “We are planning on going to a Chinese restaurant,” they told him. “But,” the Italian friar said, “they don’t have pasta in Chinese restaurants.” “They do, but the pasta is made with rice flour,” an American friar replied. “I don’t like Chinese food.” “Have you ever tried it?” asked the other American. “No,” replied the Italian friar; ” “I just know in advance that I wouldn’t like it.” “You are narrow-minded,” the Americans said. “I am not,” said the Italian. One of the Americans answered, “Not liking something in advance of trying it IS the definition of being narrow-minded.”

      I understand completely why Warner can’t remember the last time he saw a great Christian movie–he doesn’t bother to watch them. If only he stopped giving reviews of movies he hasn’t seen.

  2. Carl: it’s funny, that very interview was, to me, yet another example of Caviezel’s attitude. Re-watching it just now, with your view in mind, I can see how he could come across as more appealing. But since I am REALLY into movies, I see/read a lot of actor interviews, and compared to almost everyone else in Hollywood he seems extremely grim. And the reason I didn’t see the movie was that the trailers didn’t look interesting, and it got poor reviews. Had it not been for the reviews, I might have bitten the bullet and gone, as I sometimes go, hoping against hope that this time the Christians pulled it off. I may still see it; but it’s frustrating that I’m never actually excited about a Christian movie. I go out of a a sense of duty; but whereas I can’t wait to see Ready Player One, or Isle of Dogs, or A Quiet Place, I don’t have a fraction of that feeling for Paul, or I Can Only Imagine, or God’s Not Dead.

    • “I don’t have a fraction of that feeling for Paul, or I Can Only Imagine, or God’s Not Dead.”

      That’s fine. I had and have no interest in the latter two. The Paul movie, however, was interesting to me because of those involved and the approach.

  3. Ft. Peter: Thank you for the recommendations. I love the novel The Power and the Glory; and I’ve heard many good things about The Mission. But again, both those are from many years ago; a good Christian movie every few decades is still a distressing record, to me. Why does non-Christian — even anti-Christian — Hollywood consistently churn out good or great movies, while we, who have the fullness of Truth in the Person of Christ, consistently stumble?

  4. Julie: thank you, I will look into that. I don’t doubt Jim Caviezel’s faith, and maybe when he’s intentionally presenting it he gets fired up. But my fear is that when he comes across in interviews as such an unhappy, or at best unemotional, person, the wider world (who would never seek out his faith presentations) will only see the most somber actor they’ve ever encountered. And if a movie star who’s Catholic seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders, while every other random movie star is having the time of his life, how will that attract anyone?

      • Well, keep in mind that I’m primarily speaking from an evangelization point of view. As I said in my first post, what average viewer, seeing that a Christian actor appears far less joyful than all the non-Christians, will think Christianity has anything to offer? My point isn’t that *I* don’t like Christian movies, or connect with Christian celebrities; it’s that those outside the Church will not be attracted by them. As an already-Catholic moviegoer, I don’t really care who makes which movies, or what impression a Catholic actor makes on people. But as someone who wishes the Church would better harness the awesome power of cinema to help bring people to Christ, I am tortured by our failure to get the message out.

        • There was a prescient point made by “God’s Not Dead” screenwriter Chuck Konzelman in an interview posted on CWR when the second film came out. The quality or content of that series notwithstanding, Knozelman made this point: “If Catholics want to see some films with a distinctly more Catholic flavor, then they’re going to have to help fund them.” (full interview: http://www.catholicworldreport.com/2016/03/29/in-hollywood-gods-still-not-dead/).
          The filmmakers behind “Paul, Apostle of Christ” (and “Full of Grace” before it) know precisely they are going against the grain. They know they will have limited budgets, limited resources, limited release. This is the current reality of “faith-based films.” However, there are many great filmmakers – Catholic, Christian, or non-Christian – who regularly incorporate religious themes into big budget, “Hollywood” movies, yet these are not considered faith-based. No one would ever suggest “Schindler’s List” is a faith-based Jewish film. Put it this way: when Alfonso Cuaron made “Children of Men,” a story with undeniable Catholic themes, he said: “I didn’t want to shy away from the spiritual archetypes but I wasn’t interested in dealing with Dogma.” That right there is the whole dilemma: the great artists who have the potential of making great “Catholic” films think saints are too saintly, the faithful too pious, the Church too corrupted, dogma too rigid. But any Catholic who knows what it takes – dying and rising continually – yearn for today’s great artists to have some kind of conversion so that they could use their talents to edify the faith, not slice it off as a piece of a pie, a “faith-based” genre. Could you imagine Ridley Scott or any of these guys having a conversion experience and wanting to make a Catholic film? How could Hollywood say no to someone so respected?
          Also, Catholics primarily don’t see themselves as “Catholic” when it comes to entertainment in the way Protestant or non-denominational Christian evangelicals do. The vast majority of Catholics separate their faith from their every day life. That’s why we’ve let generations of stories run rampant over the faith, yet we love movies like “The Godfather” or the Catholicism of Scorsese. It takes a non-Catholic to turn a lens on early 2000s Catholic high school in “Lady Bird” and we’re just breathing a sight of relief the film was fairly lenient to parochial Catholicism.
          I would be interested in a story about Paul Claudel, or someone similar so transformed by a religious experience, audiences see the transformation from a secular person to someone interested pretty much only in God. Catholics are probably the world’s greatest storytellers. I, for one, long for those storytellers to break out of the expected trope of dealing with “flawed characters” i.e. Tony Soprano and actually show the arc of divine love, redemption, conversion, and the pursuit of sanctity. Catholic artists need patrons, and they themselves need to be believers.

          • Excellent points, Ainsley. I presume Cuaron grew up Catholic, and he’s a genius; would he would use it to proclaim the Truth! And Ridley Scott, when directing Exodus: Gods and Kings, made a point of providing a materialistic explanation for every “miracle” in the film.

            I agree Catholic filmmakers need faith, and funding; but you would think the mere law of averages would allow for at least one gifted Catholic movie-lover to make a mark in the world. But I’m still waiting…

  5. Hi Warner,
    Perhaps your longing for someone to leave a mark is this team behind Paul, Apostle of Christ? However, I personally am hoping they find their own ‘voice’, that is, they seem heavily reliant on Terry Malick’s style at the moment.
    The casting of Caviezel was welcomed, but many of the interviews such as with Ray Arroyo seem more interested in this purported sequel to Passion — the Resurrection as told by Mel Gibson. Caviezel promises it will be the biggest film ever! Might this be what we are longing for?

  6. From what I’ve seen/ heard, I’m not sure the Paul team is going to do the job. I have more hope for the Passion sequel: but see, Mel Gibson was already a Hollywood insider when he made The Passion. He wasn’t one of these Christians who want to make movies and don’t have the creativity to measure up: his previous movie had won 5 Oscars. Here’s hoping Resurrection (?) is everything I hope it to be…

  7. I have viewed several interviews by Caviezel. I found them compelling and real. Jim’s faith deepens with every portrayal of a figure of Christian antiquity. I have no movie bias that may influence me one way or another. I have read movie reviews and saw movies that did not get great ratings, but they were entertaining for me and for those in the audience. “I can only imagine” was the most recent movie I saw, and the message was powerful. Was it stellar performances by all actors, no, but the message was the real focus not who is acting the parts.

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