PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST REVIEW - "The Aftermath of the Aftermath"
“All right, old man, tell me everything that followed.” These are the words that Luke said to Paul right after Paul describes his experience on the Road to Damascus, and his subsequent conversion to Christianity. These words of dialogue, which take place nearly half way through the movie, are a good starting point for my review of the 2018 movie Paul, Apostle of Christ, because “everything that followed” as it were, is conspicuously missing from this movie. This is not to say, however, that this movie is incomplete – it fills itself out in other ways, but if you are looking for the complete story of the life of Paul this is not it. The vast majority of this movie takes place within a very limited timespan, and concerns the effects of Paul’s actions, rather than Paul's actions themselves. This movie, for lack of a better phrase, could be described as "the aftermath of the aftermath." In other words, the aftermath of the death and resurrection of Jesus took place around the same time as Paul’s conversion to Christianity. We do not see what follows directly after his conversion, as Luke asks, instead we are witness to what follows after that.
The movie begins in medias res (i.e. in the middle of things). The movie is set approximately three decades after Jesus’s death, and the growing Christian movement has been driven underground by the tyrannical Roman emperor Nero, who has falsely accused them of setting fire to Rome, which destroyed nearly two thirds of the city. Christians are burned alive on the streets of Rome in retaliation. Paul, being the leader of the Christians, was Nero’s main scapegoat. The Paul that we see is a beaten, old man who waits for his beheading from a dark prison cell -- the same prison cell that Luke sneaks into to record Paul’s words for Christians struggling to keep going in the face of such oppression and evil.
The transformative actions of Paul’s early career as a preacher may be lacking from this movie, but that storyline gap is filled in by the struggles of the Church in Rome while he awaits his death in a Roman prison, and by a side story about the Roman prefect who is in charge of the prison. The prefect believes that he has fallen out of favor with his gods, due to the fact that his career is fledgling and his daughter is dying. He attempts to make things right by doing whatever he can, but it isn’t until he sees Paul for who he really is (through the confiscated writings of Luke) that things turn around for him. The heartfelt moments between these would-be enemies, Paul and this Roman official, and the forces that intend to put them at odds, are the bedrock of emotion upon which this movie stands. For it is in Paul’s example of Love towards his enemy where Christ’s effect can be seen the clearest. And it is in these moments where we are given a glimpse at the sort of preacher Paul was in his prime.
Luke asked Paul to tell him "everything that followed" after his conversion. What we see instead is the effect of everything that followed. The movie, aware of its own shortcomings, addresses this conspicuous oversight at the very end of the movie. After Paul catches a faint glimpse of Jesus in Heaven after his beheading, the screen goes black and words come across the screen. These words are the answer to Luke's earlier question to Paul about “everything that followed” his conversion. The screen reads: "Prior to his imprisonment by Nero, Paul travelled more than ten thousand miles for over 10 years establishing Christian communities throughout the Ancient World.” This one sentence, which is thrown in at the end of the movie, like an afterthought, describes what I think most people expect to see, expanded over two or three hours, in a movie about Paul.
This movie, instead, gives us more of a time capsule of Church history rather than a Biblical epic. It shines a much-needed light on the struggles of the early followers of Jesus, and how they risked their lives everyday to follow Christ at a very specific moment in history. It is called Paul, the Apostle of Christ, as if we are going to be presented with the complete picture of the man responsible for writing over half of the New Testament, and converting the ancient world to Christianity, but instead what we get are the final embers of what we can tell was once a great fire.