Home > Reviews > PAUL: APOSTLE OF CHRIST – Jan A.P. Kaczmarek


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s interesting to note that, for quite some time now, Hollywood has been out of love with the biblical epic. It’s not that long ago than an adaptation of a bible story was a film studio annual cornerstone, guaranteed to bring in the crowds and the money. Some of the greatest and most lavish films in cinema history – Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, Quo Vadis – drew their inspiration from the most important parts of Christian scripture, while a whole raft of others focused on ‘minor characters’ from the bible but were no less successful – Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, The Robe, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Story of Ruth, Barabbas. However, at a certain point audience enthusiasm for these films dwindled away, and for many subsequent years biblical films were considered passé, a relic of the over-stuffed studio era.

It was not until Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in 2004 that a biblical film connected with audiences again in any meaningful way, but since then only a handful have been produced – The Nativity Story in 2006, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah in 2014, and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings also in 2014 among them. However, none of them were especially successful, either with critics or at the box office, most likely because they too often tried to be revisionist, or tried to present the stories in overly-anachronistic and modern ways which ended up alienating the very audiences they were trying to reach. Unfortunately the same will likely be said about director Andrew Wyatt’s film Paul: Apostle of Christ, a drama starring James Faulkner and Jim Caviezel. It tells the story of Saint Paul, who was originally known as Saul of Tarsus and was a ruthless persecutor of Christians prior to his conversion to Christianity, and who was eventually executed by Emperor Nero in Rome around the year 65AD. Despite a good cast and handsome production values it was released to little fanfare in March 2018, and had grossed just $16 million at the US box office at the time of writing.

One thing that was always true of biblical films was that they inspired tremendous scores. Miklós Rózsa, Elmer Bernstein, Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman, and Mario Nascimbene were the undisputed kings of the genre during its golden age, while composers as varied as John Debney, Clint Mansell, and Mychael Danna wrote some of their career-best works for the more recent efforts. The score for Paul: Apostle of Christ is by the great Polish composer Jan A. P. Kaczmarek, and before I say anything else I just want to say how delighted I am that Kaczmarek is back scoring a mainstream and comparatively high profile film. He was writing one or two major scores every year throughout most of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but after he won his Oscar for Finding Neverland in 2004 he sort of drifted away from Hollywood. He has worked a lot since then, establishing both the film-centric Instytut Rozbitek and the related but film music-specific Transatlantyk International Film and Music Festival back home in Poland, while scoring numerous movies and TV shows and theatrical documentaries. However, more often than not the films he scored were limited to the European art house circuit; in fact, the last film of his to make any sort of mark on the US box office was probably the Robert Duvall-Bill Murray movie Get Low in 2009. What all this means is that fans of Kaczmarek’s music, like me, have had to wait a long time to hear his voice back on American cinema screens.

Having said that, it’s best not to go into Paul: Apostle of Christ with the expectation that Kaczmarek has re-written Ben-Hur, because he hasn’t. The story the film tells is small and intimate; it’s set during the time immediately prior to Paul’s execution by Nero, and he is an old man, in prison. Luke, one of Jesus’s other disciples, arrives in Rome and breaks into the jail intending to rescue his friend from the executioner, but instead Paul and Luke look back on the former’s life, reflecting on his choices, his conversion on the road to Damascus, his dedication to Christianity, and his serene acceptance of his fate and martyrdom. To convey these ideas Kaczmarek has used a fairly small ensemble – the string section of the Prague Filmharmonic Orchestra with special emphasis on solo cello, augmented by light synths, a cimbalom or dulcimer, a little percussion, and ethnic woodwinds including a duduk. Once in a while he also uses some gentle, understated choral effects to accentuate a certain aspect of spirituality. The overall mood of the score is gentle, hypnotic, respectful, and calm.

Paul himself has a theme, which goes a significant way to capturing the spirit of the man: his stoicism in the face of his impending death, his faith in his friend Jesus, and his dedication to spreading peace and love in the world. The theme first appears in the first cue, “Love is the Only Way,” a meditative piece which emerges from a bed of lyrical piano lines and turns into a truly gorgeous solo cello melody, haunting and reflective, and then goes on to present a series of solemn, but attractive and purposeful violin chords . This theme recurs several times as the score progresses, most notably in “The Community” and “The Hope,” where Paul’s theme is accompanied by synth textures that give it a glassy, magical sheen.

There is darkness in the score too, as there must be in order to counterbalance the light. “Nero’s Rome” features strident string ostinatos, rattling cimbaloms, insistent ethnic percussion, and subtle synths, all of which succeed in depicting the Roman capital as a dangerous place, especially for a Christian. The use of what sounds like a Ram’s horn towards the end of the cue (listen at 1:50) adds a touch of pagan flair to the proceedings, making it stand at odds with the peacefulness of Christianity. Later, both “Luke Sneaks Into the City” and “Mamertine Prison” continue these ideas with guttural sounds from the basses, processed synth effects, and unnerving string harmonics, all of which create a palpable sense of tension. Interestingly, towards the end of the second of these cues, Kaczmarek introduces the choir for the first time, juxtaposing the angelic voices and liturgical chord progressions against the dissonance as a way to expose the harrowing conditions of Paul’s prison living quarters.

Much of the score’s middle section continues to wallow in darkness. Cues such as “An Arrangement,” “A Blind Love,” “Separate Paths,” and “Heavenly Vision,” feature harsh cello chords, the tinkling cimbalom, unusual woodwind textures, and various urgent drones and pulses from both the string section and from the glassy electronics. In “Jerusalem Violence” he oscillates between the light and the dark, offsetting the moody strings with some surprisingly delicate harp textures and string chords. Later, in “Storming the Prison,” there is a brief hint of action material with a more insistent throbbing cello ostinato underneath the cimbalom and the oppressive growling strings. However, it’s during this sequence that Kaczmarek is liable to lose some listeners; the music is fascinating from a textural point of view, and it successfully captures the mood of the conversation between Paul and Luke as the former looks back at his life’s path, but unless you are paying close attention to what Kaczmarek is doing, and why, most of this is likely to drift by without leaving much of an impression.

The same can be said for “Road to Damascus” and “Saul’s Transformation,” which underscores what is arguably the film’s pivotal scene and the most important moment in Saul/Paul’s life – as those who have studied the bible will know, Saul of Tarsus was travelling from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest Jesus’s apostles when he was confronted with a vision of a resurrected Jesus. Having been struck blind by the sight, he regains his vision three days later, and is subsequently convinced of Jesus’s divinity; changing his name to Paul, he spends the rest of his life preaching the gospel. However, considering the nature of the scene, the music is remarkably understated. Whereas some might expect it to be magical, even euphoric, Kaczmarek scores the event with a great deal of subtlety and restraint, using only string sustains, synths, cimbalom textures, a moody duduk, and what sounds like throat singers or whisperers, before ending with an admittedly beautiful reprise if Paul’s Theme.

The finale of the score comprises four cues; the first, “Mauritius Sacrifices to the Gods,” is a lovely piece for high, searching synth drones and string chords, metallic percussion, and a haunting cello, and also sees the return of the choral textures from the Mamertine Prison cue, with the voices singing the Latin phrase ‘Agnus Dei’. “Luke Heals Celia” is again pretty, with some lovely string phrases from high violins, and it embraces a warm, romantic sound towards the end. “Write It Down” uses the duduk softly, in combination with graceful strings, giving the cue a noble but slightly resigned sense of quiet sadness. The conclusive “Exodus” is the longest cue on the album and is essentially an extended statement of Paul’s Theme as heard in the opening cue, with more attractive writing for piano and cello.

It’s interesting to look back on my own musical past and realize just how much my tolerance and appreciation for this type of music has increased over the years. A decade ago I would have dismissed Paul: Apostle of Christ as a missed opportunity; I would have yearned for something more grand and celebratory, glorifying God and his good works, and criticized the composer for his more low-key approach. However, I now find this sort of music to have a soothing effect on my mood, and I also appreciate Kaczmarek’s approach and his musical choices a lot more. At its core, this is a film about two old friends reminiscing about their life together in the moments before one of them dies; as such, it is necessarily downbeat, thoughtful, perhaps a little introspective. However, through the beauty of Paul’s Theme, Kaczmarek has successfully captured the lead character’s quiet determination and the strength of his spiritual conviction, which is not an easy thing to convey through music. I just hope that the comparative failure of the film to connect with audiences does not in any way hinder Jan Kaczmarek’s possible return to the mainstream Hollywood scoring scene: I for one have greatly missed his voice, and I know others have too.

Buy the Paul: Apostle of Christ soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Love is the Only Way (3:19)
  • Nero’s Rome (2:33)
  • Luke Sneaks Into the City (1:28)
  • The Community (1:04)
  • Mamertine Prison (0:56)
  • An Arrangement (2:06)
  • Jerusalem Violence (4:30)
  • Thorn in the Flesh (2:20)
  • The Hope (3:43)
  • A Blind Love (1:02)
  • Road to Damascus (1:34)
  • Saul’s Transformation (2:08)
  • Separate Paths (1:36)
  • Storming the Prison (3:02)
  • Heavenly Vision (1:30)
  • Mauritius Sacrifices to the Gods (2:05)
  • Luke Heals Celia (3:30)
  • Write it Down (0:54)
  • Exodus (5:26)

Running Time: 44 minutes 55 seconds

Sony Classical (2018)

Music composed by Jan A. P. Kaczmarek. Conducted by Adam Klemens. Performed by The Filmharmonic Orchestra Prague. Orchestrations by Antoni Wojnar and Sebastian Zawadzki. Recorded and mixed by Jan Holzner. Edited by Curt Sobel. Album produced by Jan A. P. Kaczmarek.

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