Numerous films have been based on the Gospels, but few have been based on the Book of Acts. Even when filmmakers make a point of depicting stories from across the Scriptures, the early church tends to get left out; a typical example is the otherwise excellent series of British-Russian animated films that began with Testament, a collection of nine half-hour episodes from the Old Testament, and ended with The Miracle Maker, a feature film about Jesus. As finales go, the death and resurrection of Jesus are pretty hard to beat.
Thankfully, some filmmakers do explore the work of the apostles once in a while. The best examples to date are probably the 1985 mini-series A.D., which does a marvelous job of depicting the joy that animated the Jerusalem church but gets increasingly sidetracked by secular history and fictitious love stories between soldiers, slaves and gladiators the further it moves into Gentile territory; and the 1981 TV movie Peter and Paul, starring Anthony Hopkins, which takes superb advantage of the autobiographical information in Paul’s epistles.
The latest example is Paul the Apostle, a TV movie produced four years ago as part of The Bible Collection (a series of films made between 1994 and 2002 by the Italian company Lux Vide) and released to video this summer. Paul the Apostle is the last installment of this series to come out on video; earlier installments, including the Emmy-winning Joseph and the CBS mini-series Jesus, were released on the Warner and Trimark labels, while a subsequent film, The Apocalypse, was released by GoodTimes earlier this year.
Unfortunately, Paul the Apostle is one of the weakest entries in the series. Directed by Roger Young (who also directed Joseph and Jesus) from a script by Gareth Jones (Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace) and Gianmario Pagano (The Apocalypse), the film dilutes its biblical source material with much more fictitious material than any of the films that came before it.
For example, the film spends an incredible amount of time on a completely made-up Sadducee character named Reuben (Thomas Lockyer), who turns against Paul (Johannes Brandrup) when Paul becomes a Christian, and whose giggly wife Dinah (Barbora Bobulova) converts to Christianity. (And thanks to a bit of nudity on this Sadducee’s wedding night, the distributor has asked Christian bookstores to destroy their copies of the film, in anticipation of a new censored version.) Ample time is also given to Gamaliel (Franco Nero), who represents the broad-minded, tolerant branch of the Pharisee movement.But the life and mission of Paul himself are given very short shrift. Indeed, the film has a very odd structure overall; it stretches the early chapters of Acts and pads them with plenty of unnecessary material, while the actual travels of Paul are compressed to a few slight montages. Paul does not appear in the Scriptures until the end of Acts 7, and Part One of this two-part film ends with Paul’s escape from Damascus, as described in the middle of Acts 9. By the time we are two-and-a-half-hours into this three-hour film, we have still gotten no further than the break-up of Paul and Barnabas (G.W. Bailey) in Acts 15. But when the film ends just half an hour later, Paul is arriving in Rome, as per Acts 28.
The film also fails a basic test of cinema by telling, rather than showing, several key events. Paul complains that Peter (Ennio Fantastichini) and Barnabas have been avoiding the Gentiles ever since certain men from James (Christian Brendel) arrived in Antioch, but we never actually see this happen. Similarly, we never see Peter go to the house of Cornelius or escape from prison, though we hear characters talk about it afterwards.
However, there is a scene in which King Herod (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) takes his sweet time killing the soldiers who were on duty when Peter escaped from prison — an episode that does have a basis in Acts, but hardly warrants such pronounced treatment in a film that apparently can’t find time to flesh out the missionary work of its title character.
There are many other iffy details, too. It is doubtful that traditional Pharisees would have engaged in semi-nude Greek-style wrestling matches, or that Barnabas would have laughed and basked in the attention when the people of Lystra acclaimed him as a god, or that Roman authorities would have encouraged Jewish mobs to stone people to death. (In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus reports that a Roman procurator actually had a Jewish high priest demoted for presiding over the stoning of James, the brother of Jesus.)
The Bible Collection has always been a mixed bag, but Paul the Apostle is, perhaps, more mixed than most.
— A version of this review first appeared on the Christianity Today website.