The Easter season brings not one but three prominent releases of Christian films. I Can Only Imagine, a biopic based on the wildly popular Christian song of the same title, surprised observers with a $17 million opening weekend and added another $21 million since. Later this week, the next entry in the God’s Not Dead franchise, Light in the Darkness, opens with John Corbett and Tatum O’Neal in the cast.  Both of these cover modern-day dilemmas facing Christians, but Paul Apostle of Christ takes audiences back to the roots of the faith by focusing on its most prolific apostolic teacher and organizer, Saul/Paul of Tarsus. In doing so, it may set a standard to which other Christian films should aspire, even if it might end up overlooked in the Holy Week mix.

Warning: Slight spoilers included.

At a time of profound persecution in Rome, the leader of the nascent Christian community sits in prison, falsely accused by Nero of burning down half of the city. His friend and biographer Luke arrives to see what he can do for Paul and for the Christians hiding for their lives in the city. The Christian community is torn between whether to leave Rome or to stay and witness to the devastation, and whether to suffer for Christ or to retaliate.

That sense of crisis is palpable throughout most of the film.  When Luke (Jim Caviezel) arrives, they want to him to provide leadership — more on that in a moment — and Luke finds his way into the prison to talk with Paul (James Faulkner). He begins writing down Paul’s observations, which Luke will later use to write Acts of the Apostles, and they both come into contact with a Roman prison warden (Olivier Martinez) who faces a life-and-death crisis in his own family. Other than a few gentle moments between Paul and Luke, and a later scene between Paul and his warden, the entire film effectively paints Christianity as an enterprise on a knife’s edge, about to fall into despair and destruction.

Storywise, the script sticks to the scriptures where applicable and stays within the historical record for most of the rest. It places the audience in the midst of the fear and panic of Nero’s Rome, and its cynicism and cruelty as well. The only off-key note is a healing that gets telegraphed from a mile off and overplayed a bit at the end, but it’s a forgivable lapse in an otherwise outstanding film. The only other questionable choice, from a historical point of view, is the almost total exclusion of Peter, who was in Rome at the same time and was the head of the church. It’s an understandable plot device that serves the need to focus attention on Luke and Paul, but audiences will see it as a plot hole [see update below rating]. Peter only gets mentioned once in an affectionate remembrance between Luke and Paul.

Paul Apostle of Christ is a surprising film, not for its testimony, but in the restrained, natural, and (mainly) non-sensational manner in which it unfolds. Even the atrocities committed by Nero are mainly referenced and not seen, except for a few instances of burning Christians on the streets. Nero’s circus, for instance, blessedly remains to the imagination. Their impact is instead transmitted to us through the performances of Caviezel and the supporting cast, led by Joanne Whalley as Priscilla and John Lynch as Aquilla.

However, the most powerful performance in the film belongs to Faulkner, who brings Paul to life in spectacularly gritty fashion. Faulkner’s Paul is haunted by his earlier crimes against the Christians, in what proves to be a compelling parallel to the community’s crisis with Nero. He offers his humility and compassion but has the strength to command the Christian community against retaliation and to trust in The Way of Christ. His interactions with the warden offer a gentle look at the evangelizing power of Paul, his humble and affectionate approach, while the film restrains itself from a neat and happy resolution to that narrative. The final scene of Paul’s execution is a beautiful reflection on forgiveness and redemption at the apex of worldly cruelty, and even Paul’s captor has some grace in the end. In a just world, Faulkner’s performance would garner attention in next year’s awards season.

Paul Apostle of Christ is the best biblical film since Risen, which has been the best in its class over the last several decades. It deserves a much broader audience, although its first weekend appears to have fallen somewhat short of the performance of I Can Only Imagine (which I plan to see this week if possible). Hopefully audiences will flock to it, pun intended, during Holy Week. When the time comes, Paul Apostle of Christ will occupy a space on my shelf next to Risen and The Passion of the Christ as traditional Easter films.

On the Hot Air scale, Paul Apostle of Christ gets a 5:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

The film drew a PG-13 rating despite the realistic nature of the few atrocities it depicts. It’s almost certainly not for pre-adolescent children that might get disturbed by that violence, but also may not appreciate the reliance on dialogue over action throughout the film. I would have no problem taking my 15-year-old granddaughter to see it, but I’d be reluctant to take the 9-year-old.

Update: It has always been my understanding that Peter and Paul were executed by the Romans at roughly the same time, and for the same pretext: the massive fires in Rome. That’s why I found it odd that there would be no mention of Peter while the community looked to Paul for leadership. Some believe that there was more time between Peter’s execution and Paul’s, which would make the film’s exclusive focus on Paul as the leader of the Roman Christians more understandable. Either way, it’s not a critical issue in enjoying the film.