"What we go through here, especially in the United States, for our faith pales in comparison to what people in the early Church went through and what people around the world go through in terms of persecution," said Rich Peluso, executive vice president of AFFIRM Films, a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment that develops faith-based and inspirational films.
"Paul Apostle of Christ" is set during Emperor Nero's persecution of the Christian community in Rome. "People were being used as candles all over Rome and being burned alive, and yet he [St. Luke] was able to take a stand in the face of evil. He must have believed in the very words of Paul, 'to live is Christ, to die is gain,'" said Caviezel.
In the midst of this suffering, the film follows first-century couple Priscilla and Aquila as they wrestle with the question of whether the Christians should flee the city to protect their community or remain to be a witness to the Romans.
This question, faced by persecuted Christian communities throughout the ages, has repeatedly captured the imagination of screenwriters and artists. In the 2010 film "Of Gods and Men," Cistercian monks take a vote as to whether or not they should stay in Algeria and risk martyrdom at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, as do the nuns in Francis Poulenc's opera, "Dialogue of the Carmelites," set during the French Revolution. Iraqi Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil spoke recently about how Christians in Iraq today faced the same question as ISIS attacked their communities.
Director and Screenwriter Andrew Hyatt told CNA that this decision is one of the authentic struggles highlighted in the film. Hyatt said that he sought to put Paul's writing into its historical context through the film.
"Paul lived an experience. If he was writing anything, it was because someone needed to hear it and that was probably somebody in his community. There was no idea of this Bible thing or someday billions of people will read this. It was more that it had to come out of a need, so I really wanted the dialogue and the Scripture to be weaved together in a way so that it felt like an authentic, lived thing," said Hyatt.
"Saint Paul definitely teaches an entire life of conversion, an entire life of proclamation, an entire life of love and dedication to our Lord Jesus Christ and to do everything possible to proclaim Christ's love to the rest of the world," said Bishop Edward Burns at the March 20 premiere in his Dallas diocese.
Paul Apostle of Christ opens in theaters throughout the U.S. on Friday, March 23.