“The Emperor Constantine,” Dorothy Sayers, and A Movie on Saint Paul

Dorothy Sayers wrote a nearly forgotten play The Emperor Constantine and reading this fine piece of work woke me up to the problem with an earnest and at times moving film on Saint Paul I saw this weekend. We went with wonderful folk, met even more great people, including a row of delightful nuns. I had a great time and owe the sponsors a debt for making a jolly evening: yet.

This is not a bad film (see Legally Blonde II), but it is a bland film that did not need to be bland.

The film has twenty powerful minutes at the end that made me cry and some very able acting from Jim Caviziel (Saint Luke) and James Faulkner (Saint Paul). The sets are sharp and there is no dreadful CG work or fake beards. I am thankful for the goal of making movies about these things, pleased with growth in execution (better actors), but sorry about one key failure.

The film starts slowly, picks up, only to confuse a sermon with a story. There are moments when the relationship between Luke and Paul works, but also scenes in the early church where the acting and the pacing fail the viewer. There are twenty minutes in the middle where Hope (my wife, not the virtue) fell fast asleep.

Saint Paul famously put people to sleep, but we need not imitate everything he did in a film about the man. Hope that films made by Christians that tell the stories they wish to tell, including religious ones, will get better springs eternal, but this Spring Hope still sleeps.

We need to do better.

As the career of Larry Norman demonstrated, telling your whole story if you are also a Christian can be hard. Still, friends such as Barbara Nicolosi or the irreplaceable Doug TenNapel show good product gets made in and out of the system. Vitally: bad product is taken seriously and when a hapless youth leader on the Christian fringe shows something most of Christendom is mocking, then she sets up her friends for deconversion. Listen to some Bach. Read some Sayers. Watch a film by Tarkovsky. These baptize the imagination and set us up for spiritual depth.

We know what to do: hire Barbara to help you or get Doug to go creative.

This is why, sadly, the quality of aspects of Paul, Apostle of Christ is not acceptable. Dorothy Sayers stepped back from her career as a novelist, thinker, and her hobby translating Dante to write some plays. They are very good, because Sayers knew how to tell a story. The pacing in Constantine is rapid. My copy has 190 pages and I burned through them, because Sayers creates tension in a story where the ending is a known.

The play is not a movie, but the pacing is faster than the movie, even though the play is from the 1950s when pacing could be slower. Audiences had more tolerance for talking, but Sayers, with no access to special effects, keeps the dialog short and (relatively) snappy. Let me concede something to the  writers of to the film Paul, Apostle of Christ

Just as they are not Dorothy Sayers, so I am not a real film reviewer like (say) Alissa Wilkinson.

My simple point is that we are fifty years after Sayers, we have people who teach us how to do these things, and we could do better. The acting is wasted, the ending (very fine) is harmed by not using some basic techniques that inferior films in other ways get right. Sound acting cannot overcome weak writing.

Is this the best we could do?

Maybe, and then we can have the tolerance we wish to receive. We should allow filmmakers time to grow, though of course funders and movie goers might not be so patient.

I write a piece daily and edit as I can. Hope (my darling wife) does some more editing and on some pieces (that gain more readership) I have further help tightening up my daily thoughts. However poor the product, I do the best I can inside the genre and am trying to do better. This is a weird new thing: daily blogs with no professional editing.

We are learning the rules.

Motion pictures, movies, are not a new thing. They have some rules and if people want to penetrate the mainstream, they either must play by those rules or break them in a way that is revolutionary. Black Panther (thank God) destroyed the informal “rule” that limited African-American participation in mainstream filmmaking, yet it did not break general rules of how to tell a story or make a movie. 

Too often filmmakers who want to tell a story with Christian elements (Hurrah!), so in breaking the white secular establishment rules do not bother to follow the rules of how to tell a story or make a movie. Again, if they produced better (or arguably better) rules in those areas, then hurrah! This, however, would require a genius greater than Dorothy Sayers who bent rules, adapted them, but in even in a young field, detective stories, she worked hard to develop rules of the road to avoid crap.

Naturally, most of what we do is not very good, maybe all of what we work to do ends up not being very good, but we strive to express goodness, truth, and beauty. If we could easily do better, the project has many people and much money attached to it, then we should be better.

Or so it seems to me.

 


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