New 'Paul: Apostle of Christ' Film Falls Into Classic Christian Movie Traps

YouTube screenshot of Jim Caviezel playing Luke in "Paul: Apostle of Christ."

This Holy Week, the Christian film studio Affirm Films launched “Paul: Apostle of Christ,” a movie ostensibly about the Apostle Paul. Chock-full of scripture, the film presents the struggling Christian church in first century Rome, mixing the themes of hope and belief with persecution and death. Tragically, the movie bites off quite a bit more than it can chew.

Despite the film’s title, “Apostle of Christ” does not focus entirely on the Apostle Paul. Instead, it flits between the struggling church in Rome, the Gospel author Luke, a Roman family, and the title character. All the stories connect to Paul, but the movie jumbles them together with shoddy editing.

The film opens in 67 A.D., following a devastating fire for which the Roman Emperor Nero blames the Christians. The emperor has imprisoned Paul (James Faulkner) for the crime, but Luke (Jim Caviezel) smuggles his way into the prison to capture Paul’s wisdom. The Roman church, led by Priscilla (Joanne Whalley) and Aquila (John Lynch), is divided by a faction of young men who want revenge on Nero.

Persecution dominates the film from start to finish, and it captures the struggles early Christians faced in Rome. Even so, the violence and death are rarely portrayed directly, as the film avoids the kind of grotesque yet powerful imagery of “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) or “Risen” (2016). This weakens the theme’s emotional appeal.

The movie captures many historical struggles well. Early on, Priscilla laments the way Romans mistreat the weak, noting that babies are constantly exposed to the elements and widows abandoned to die of hunger. The Christian church did indeed minister to these people often forgotten by the pagan culture around them.

While “Apostle of Christ” captures this setting well, it does not tell one connected story. Episodes with Luke speaking to Paul, episodes with the Roman guard’s family, and episodes with the church in Rome feel very disjointed, as if forced together into one narrative where they do not belong. Ultimately, the story lacks the discipline to zero down on one coherent narrative.

Loosely structured around Luke’s composition of the book of Acts from Paul’s recollections in prison, the film flits to and fro to different characters disconnected from that grand narrative. Besides a few poorly-handled flashbacks, the movie does not move through the book of Acts and the scenes between Paul and Luke focus less on storytelling and more on Paul consoling his young friend in the face of apparent hopelessness.

Paul struggles with his violent past, but mostly in vague flashbacks about him persecuting Christians. He barely discusses his theological transition or the deep ideas and argumentation in his letters, and instead focuses on emotional struggles.

The movie shows two flashbacks that emerge in the book of Acts: the stoning of Stephen and the vision of Christ Paul had on the road to Damascus. Neither scene proved particularly gripping, and while it would be hard to capture a moment as pivotal as Paul’s vision of Christ, the film barely even tries to make it astounding or memorable for the audience.

The struggles of the church in Rome and a Roman family’s sick daughter derail the impact of Paul’s discussions with Luke, creating a confusing back-and-forth between the few recollections Paul actually does discuss and the events of the present day. At times, these scenes feel pressed into service, as if to make the interaction between Luke and Paul more interesting, but actually derailing it.

Telling the story of Paul’s final days is an excellent idea for a movie, but “Paul: Apostle of Christ” suffers from poor editing and a lack of focus. While the acting and cinematography work well, the central storytelling can not hold the film together.

Furthermore, the filmmakers put an excessive amount of scripture in the mouths of various characters. While the moral and spiritual lessons are important and pertinent to the tumultuous times in the film, these Bible quotes lose their power when used too much. Furthermore, the Bible quotations from Jesus almost seem a filler to excuse the film’s aggravating lack of actual meat from the book of Acts.

“Paul: Apostle of Christ” has many great scenes. It captures the spirit of early church persecution well, and weaves scripture into dialogue. Jim Caviezel delivers a strong — if aimless — performance as Luke, and a prominent Roman considers Christianity after his pagan gods fail him.

For all these strengths, the movie fails to coalesce into a natural whole. Attempting to span four stories, the film fails to adequately tell one. For all the Bible quotes, the movie falls short of delivering a straightforward Bible narrative, which is a problem for a film ostensibly about the creation of the book of Acts.

This Easter, Christians should reach for their old DVDs of “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) or “Risen” (2016), and stay home.