Did you ever watch a movie made from a favorite book and feel let down because the filmmakers left out all the things you liked about the story and fecklessly added and changed many other things? That’s what I felt last Spring after seeing the movie “Paul the Apostle of Christ,” which became available this summer on DVD.
The filmmakers left out all my favorite parts of some of my favorite books of the New Testament.
The Scriptural story about how St. Paul converted from a persecutor of Christians to a lover of Christ is riveting. So is the story of how he walked thousands of miles and suffered beatings and deprivations to spread the good news that was revealed to him by Christ, of the remarkable letters he wrote to the local churches he helped found, how he ended up in Rome by shrewdly claiming his rights as a Roman citizen after he was brought to trial in Jerusalem, up to what little we know of how he met his death as a martyr.
But the movie—not so riveting. If I could have left without disturbing the woman to my right in her recliner seat, I would have walked out soon after the movie started. I was surprised that the few reviews I had read beforehand were positive and spoke of the solid acting and production values.
I agree that the actors in the major roles (Jim Cavaziel—who played Christ in “Passion of the Christ”—as St. Luke, along with previously unknown-to-me actors James Faulkner as St. Paul, and so-called Gallic heart throb Olivier Martinez as Mauritius, the Roman commander of the prison) acted well, but the minor actors all seemed to take a second at the start of each scene to adjust their facial expressions to the feelings they were supposed to be portraying. There was nothing otherwise jarringly wrong about the production, except that the scenes and the costumes were a bit too prettily color-coordinated in soft pastel shades when they weren’t disturbingly dark and oddly blurred.
As Luke walks through Rome, and we see Christians “burning like candles” to light the streets by Nero’s order, I began to suspect that the filmmakers were not-so-subtly interjecting violence to emulate the shock value of the “Passion of the Christ” movie.
Some say you won’t be able to follow the story unless you know the Acts of the Apostles, which isn’t going to be a good thing for most viewers. But then, I know the Acts account well, and I couldn’t follow their story either.
The scriptwriters didn’t quote the Scriptures in any coherent way, even though they claim in interviews to have started with the Scriptures. Part of a sentence of dialogue from Paul will be an authentic quote, and the rest of the sentence will be made up. The next sentence doesn’t follow from the first, so the true doctrine of Christ doesn’t ever get spoken.
Based on one verse in one of St. Paul’s letters saying “only Luke is with me,” in the movie Luke comes to Rome to find Paul in prison. By prearrangement, Luke connects with a group of Catholics led by Priscilla and Aquila who are living together in hiding.
In the New Testament account, Paul met the couple Priscilla and Aquila in Corinth and lived with them and made tents with them, after they had been expelled by Claudius from Rome because Aquila was a Jew. Paul was never in Rome while the couple lived there.
The scriptwriters portray Luke writing the Acts of the Apostles while visiting Paul. For some reason Luke is allowed free access to Paul after he is found sneaking into the prison and brought to the prison commander, although the movie doesn’t believably portray the commander’s motivation.
One other much-stressed dramatic point is that the Catholics in hiding are undecided about whether to flee Rome to avoid the fate of many others who are being captured and sent to die in the Coliseum. Priscilla wants to stay because she is helping people.
This reduces Christianity to be kindness and social work. The Christians who are hiding out together resemble a group of well-meaning hippies. In reality, the early Christians would have taken care of each other but wouldn’t have had “helping people” as their main focus. The movie doesn’t show them worshiping together or remembering Christ’s death as He told us to remember Him in the Mass.
An especially irritating line in the last meeting between St. Paul and the Roman jailer was “Love is the only Way.” Maybe John Lennon and Yoko Ono were channeling St. Paul?
But seriously, applying simplistic motives to the heroes of our Faith is just not good enough. That is not the message of Christ. He told us He is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him. And even more importantly, He told us, to show that you belong to Me, keep My commandments.
There is a lot of complexity to the Catholic faith, with mysteries such as Baptism, the ordained priesthood, the papacy, and the Eucharist, but our minds are only opened to understanding it all when we realize who Christ is and respond with love to what He did for us. And what He, and St. Paul, did for us was to live in great poverty and humility, and to travel and teach and suffer and die to save us.
Which is not reducible to a simplistic slogan.