Paul, Apostle of Christ captures what it is to live, die for Christ

If there could be a word to describe the new film Paul, Apostle of Christ, it could be “martyrdom” — martyrdom suffered by the first Christians persecuted by Paul himself when he was called Saul of Tarsus and martyrdom suffered by Paul’s friends after his conversion.

The film, which stars James Faulkner as Paul and Jim Caviezel as Luke, focuses on the final moments of the life of Paul, also called Apostle of the Gentiles, who resides in the Mamertine Prison within the Imperial Forums in Rome. He is sentenced and punished for helping to spread Christianity and supporting the strange sect that believed in the resurrection of Christ, and for writing dozens of letters to different towns and people about the truth of Jesus.

A Greek doctor, Luke, pays Paul a visit to help heal the wounds left from the flogging he had suffered due to his sentence. Luke was fascinated to see Paul’s courage and love for Jesus that led him to change the course of his life; he went from being a persecutor of Christians to being persecuted by Emperor Nero and his men, who saw Christians as a threat to the unity and power of the Roman Empire.

After several conversations between Luke and Paul, Luke (who was also a writer) felt compelled to take notes of the teachings of the wise man, his life, his time as a persecutor of Christians, and his conversion. That is how the book of Acts of the Apostles was written. The liturgy of the Catholic Church remembers it in a special way during the Easter season, because the first reading of the 50 days before the resurrection of Christ Mass is taken from there.

It’s very nice to see well-produced Christian films, with great actors who know how to personify the first Christians, transmit the beauty of their faith, their enormous courage, and at the same time the suffering caused by the persecution and the (natural) fear of death.

With sweeping cinematography and good care of small details, this production faithfully illustrates the life of Saint Paul, not only in his last moments but also during important events such as his participation in the martyrdom of Saint Stephen (who nobly asked God to not consider the sin of his executioners) and then his conversion on his way to Damascus, when Jesus appeared to him and asked him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).

One of the most powerful scenes in the film is the moment of his baptism where he leaves behind the life he led until that moment and is born again as a Christian. The most famous phrases and quotes that appear in the different Pauline epistles and that have served to transmit and strengthen the faith to entire generations are present in the film.

The movie pays homage to the first martyrs of the nascent Church whose faith and integrity was much stronger than their fears. They remind us of so many persecuted Christians around the world, who today continue to give their lives as witness to the Jesus they have encountered, to the God who transformed their lives. As Saint Paul himself wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “For to me, life is Christ and death is gain” (Phil 1:21).

COMING UP: You’ll want to see this movie about St. Paul opening Easter

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A new Biblical film, Paul, the Apostle of Christ, starring Jim Caveizel (The Passion of the Christ) and James Faulkner (Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey) explores the question, “Is anyone beyond grace?”

St. Paul, who before his conversion had persecuted Christians, encountered Christ in a profound way (as told through the Acts of the Apostles) and it drastically changed his way of life — and his person.

The film, set to release just in time for Easter, is produced by ODB Films (Full of Grace) and Sony AFFIRM Films, and takes place in Emperor Nero’s Rome after the city has been burned down and persecution of Christians broke out soon after. Meanwhile, Paul, played by Faulkner, is in prison awaiting his execution and the community of believers live in hiding. Luke, played by Caveizel, lives in the community but can also get into the prison to visit Paul, and he begins to put together the Acts of the Apostles from Paul’s words.

It’s the second feature-film project from ODB films, a Catholic non-profit production company, who released the award-winning Full of Grace in 2015 in limited release, which followed Mary and the apostles after Jesus’ ascension to heaven.

For writer and director Andrew Hyatt, who also wrote and directed Full of Grace, telling Paul’s story from a unique perspective was a natural next step.

“We wanted to go back to the beginning [with Full of Grace]; no one’s really taken on Mary from the Annunciation through her death…after that, I was reflecting on my own experience, and ultimately it was a personal decision [to tell Paul’s story],” Hyatt told Denver Catholic.

“His story is one of the most profound stories of the reality in Scripture of God’s grace and mercy…and he became the greatest evangelizer, and that was so moving,” he continued. “[It deals with the question], ‘Is anybody beyond grace?’ If you look at Paul’s story, the answer is of course not.”

“When you dig into who he was, he was a modern-day member of ISIS — and he changed,” said TJ Berden, producer of the film. “It’s this question of, do we believe people can change? You can see in the world right now, people think [others are too far gone]. It’s radical that Paul changed.”

A human story

Telling Paul’s story in a creative way while remaining faithful to Scripture and tradition was a challenging task, Berden said.

“We’re very aware we’re operating in 2,000 years of Church tradition, but also pushing in the direction of what was interesting for us: That this man killed men of God and then something new came into his personality,” Berden said. “We kept telling the actor, Faulkner, to keep what we know of Paul, but to be very raw and real, to be very human.”

For Hyatt, the process of entering into Paul’s story and developing it for film took both a lot of research and prayer.

“I prayerfully took a few weeks to really dig into [Scripture]. I dug through Paul’s letters and Acts, and a lot of the film focuses on that,” he explained. “Forty books later…and then you take a wide net and whittle it down to [what’s really important to tell].”

“I built the story on these themes of mercy and forgiveness,” Hyatt said. “It’s very important to me to build a story first, and then the themes will follow. It’s being open to what God wants and taking a prayerful approach to writing, asking God what people need to hear…and trusting that God will give us that wisdom.”

Faith and Beauty

ODB Film’s approach was twofold: Creating a beautiful story and showing how Christ’s message is just as relevant today as it was when he started the Church, Hyatt said.

“We really believe in beautiful art,” he said. “We always say, ‘Where did the beautiful art go in the Church?’ So we always aim to create something beautiful…and [we hope] that the beauty will resonate with people.”

But the goal isn’t just to create something visually appealing; rather, the filmmaker’s focus is to create an experience of an encounter with Christ through the film.

James Faulkner as Paul © 2017 CTMG. All Rights Reserved

“TJ came up with the phrase ‘sacred arthouse’ — merging art and faith in a way that’s very tangible, so they encounter Christ as they’re watching, that they take it in and reflect on their own life and contemplate that encounter [with Christ],” he explained.

“We want it to be relevant…Christ’s message is just as relevant in 2017 as it was when he showed up,” he said. “[What happened] in Rome is [just as] relevant to us today. Rather than being a Biblical movie, we want to make a film that moves people to an encounter.”

Christ, our hope

With so much darkness in the world, Paul’s story of conversion and forgiveness is more timely than ever and brings a message of hope, according to Hyatt.

“I think people just need hope right now. It’s very dark in the world today,” he said. “In Paul’s story, these guys lived in such a violent world, and they had such a conviction in their faith.”

“There’s a line in the film where Paul says, ‘Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for Christ.’ It’s so encouraging that one man did [what he did] and it changed the face of the world,” he concluded. “People worry about whether they’re doing something right or something wrong, but if you live for Christ, it will all work out.”

Other cast members include Johanne Whalley (A.D.: The Bible Continues) and John Lynch (The Secret Garden). Paul, the Apostle of Christ is also Caveizel’s first Biblical movie since The Passion of the Christ. The film is set to open in wide release on March 28, 2018, just before Easter.