Is the Acts of the Apostles a film-maker's dream?

There are now two biblical films in the making that have the potential to be big box-office and artistically satisfying. Details about the sequel to Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ are sketchy so far, but Jim Caviezel is back playing Jesus. Whatever you think of the original – too gory, many would say – it was a deeply respectful, thoroughly researched piece of storytelling, and we can't expect any less of Passion 2.

Affirm FilmsJim Caviezel plays Luke in 'Paul, Apostle of Christ'.

But the one that's got potentially even more mainstream appeal is based on Acts. Paul, Apostle of Christ, also stars Caviezel, as Luke, while the part of Paul is played by James Faulkner, who plays Randyll Tarly in Game of Thrones. Other notable stars include Joanne Whalley – who also features in the mini-series AD: The Bible Continues, another treatment of Acts – and Olivier Martinez, once dubbed the French Brad Pitt.

According to Affirm Films, Paul, Apostle of Christ is the story of Luke, who risks his life to visit Paul, 'held captive in Nero's darkest, bleakest prison cell'. Nero is executing Christians in various grisly ways, and before he can kill Paul Luke is determined to write his story – which we know as Acts. And so: 'Bound in chains, Paul's struggle is internal. He has survived so much – floggings, shipwreck, starvation, stoning, hunger and thirst, cold and exposure – yet as he waits for his appointment with death, he is haunted by the shadows of his past misdeeds. Alone in the dark, he wonders if he has been forgotten...and if he has the strength to finish well.'

As Faulker puts it: 'This is Paul's last few moments to convey the message of hope and love and forgiveness to the community and that they must hold fast to the faith no matter what dangers they face.'

Caviezel says: 'When I looked at this screenplay I was amazed that the survival of Christianity rests with just a couple of people' – Priscilla and Aquila, who were hiding people facing persecution.

On the face of it Acts should make a brilliant story and there have been more than a few attempts to tell it on film in the past; Peter T Chattaway posted a comprehensive and helpful list on Patheos in 2013. Think of it: heroic resistance to a brutal empire, storms and shipwrecks (chapter 27), violence (chapter 16) , the sad parting of friends (Acts 15: 36-41), high drama (Acts 15: 1-35) and low comedy (20: 7-12). It's all there apart from a love interest.

What will make the difference between this being a film of enduring worth and another dull-but-worthy biopic is – and this may come hard to a Christian readership, but stay with me – a determined lack of reverence. In the promo trailer, Caviezel says: 'People who watch it are going to go, "Wow, they're a sinner like me"' – a perception echoed by executive producer Eric Groth, who says, 'They were just like us, they weren't born with haloes round their heads.'

The problem all faith-based films have is that they want to hit the viewer with their message sledgehammer style (like God's Not Dead). This is particularly true with biblical epics, where the producers tend to be over-conscious that they're handling sacred scripture. The characters fail to engage us because they behave as though they were born saintly. But they weren't – and Paul needs to convince us of that.

If it can reduce a divine drama to a human one, it might not satisfy conservative critics – but it will be a better film for it, and that, in the end, will serve the kingdom of Christ better.

Affirm Films is a Sony offshoot, and describes itself as 'the home of quality entertainment that inspires, uplifts, challenges and captivates'. It ought to be hard to make a bad film about Acts, though it's been done. All the right things are being said about this one – let's hope it does the Bible story justice when it's released in March.  

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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