You’ll want to see this movie about St. Paul opening next Easter

Therese Bussen

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.

COMING UP: ‘Full of Grace’ a shining example of modern Christian art

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What happened to Mary after Christ died? And how did Peter deal with being the rock Christ commissioned him to be?

This is precisely the story that is explored in Full of Grace, the tender, contemplative and beautiful new film from writer/director Andrew Hyatt. The story focuses on Mary’s final days on Earth before she is assumed into Heaven, and it intimately captures the relationship between her and her son’s successor, Peter.

Full of Grace is a new kind of Christian film, one that deviates from the typical model of most Christian films. Described by Hyatt as a “cinematic prayer,” the film is perhaps the first of its kind. The first 15 minutes of the film is intentionally paced slowly so as to prepare the audience and put them in the right mind set for viewing the film.

“Everything about the film is intentional,” he said. “This experience requires something of the audience to put in front of the film. The film, like scripture, should speak to you wherever you’re at in your life.”

Hyatt also sought to take these central biblical characters who are often perceived as being perfect and humanize them, making them relatable. Not since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ have biblical characters been depicted as fallible and as human as they are in Full of Grace.

“One of the things we really wanted to do in the film was put the flesh on the bones of these characters,” Hyatt said. “They were living, breathing people that had the same experience as we do in our faith.”

Noam Jenkins plays a doubtful but faithful Peter, and Bahia Haifi is perfectly cast as a noticeably aging but strikingly wise Mother Mary. The film focuses on the tender relationship between the two.

Writer/director Andrew Hyatt directs actress Bahia Haifi on the set of Full of Grace. (Photo provided)

Haifi’s performance as Mary is the true highlight of the film; the dialogue ebbs and flows throughout the film but always peaks when she speaks. Her humble demeanor and tender disposition is exactly as one would expect her to be in reality, and the wisdom she imparts through the film is hauntingly relevant to any walk of life, especially that of Christians.

Hyatt sought to make a film that didn’t depict the Christian life as being one that’s easy; after all, that hasn’t been his experience. Born in Colorado, he grew up in the Church and went to St. Thomas More Catholic school. However, once he hit college, he dropped his faith completely.

“My faith didn’t have anything interesting to say when put up against the temptation of the world,” Hyatt said.

In 2008, though, Hyatt experienced a conversion, which he vividly remembers. He was in a hotel in Toronto, and he said that “literally, God showed up.” He turned his life over to the Lord at that point, but it wasn’t an easy process.

“It wasn’t like I said ‘yes’ to Christ and then everything was wrapped up with a nice bow,” Hyatt said. “It took a few years of extracting myself from that life.”

After kickstarting his film career with two relatively successful films, Hyatt was approached by Outside Da Box, a Catholic, nonprofit production company, about making Full of Grace.

He initially turned down the project. He never had a desire to make a Christian film, but in getting to know fellow producers T.J. Berden and Eric Groth, he entertained the idea and wrote a draft of the script. He wanted to write a story that hadn’t been told before, he said, but also one that didn’t fall into the stereotype of most Christian films.

“What I could only do was make something that I was interested in,” he said. “I needed to make something that spoke to me and to my experience. My experience is that [faith] is messy and that we have dark times and good times. I could only make something that I felt spoke to that deeper truth.”

Despite writing a draft for the script, Hyatt still wasn’t interested in making the film. He was a young filmmaker full of worldly ambition, and he felt making a Christian film was beneath him.

“I was waiting for bigger, better things that were surely going to come…what a big mistake that was,” he said. God began systematically closing doors in his life until Full of Grace was all he had left to do.

For 18 months, Hyatt had no work. A new father, he and his wife burned through all of their savings until they only had $200 to their name. They had just let go of their lease on their apartment, they had nothing left, when he got a call from Berden and Groth informing him they raised the money for Full of Grace. They asked if he was interested in making the film.

“Had I not had nothing, I’m pretty sure I would’ve said no,”Hyatt said. “But there was literally nothing, so I said OK.”

The fruits of the film speak for themselves.

“Making Full of Grace was the first time on my entire life that I’ve been 100 percent obedient to what God wanted me to do,” Hyatt said. “To see the fruit of God’s work now in the outcome just blows me away. It’s nothing I can take credit for.”

For more information on Full of Grace, visit fullofgracefilm.comFull of Grace will be released on digitally and on DVD on January 5 through Cinedigm.