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The Other Side of Hope & Paul: Apostle of Christ | John McDonald

The Other Side of Hope & Paul: Apostle of Christ

April 6, 2018
Khaled meets the team, in 'The Other Side of Hope'

In pre-Enlightenment days ‘history’ was a mass of tall stories, myths and rumours. Authors were happy to recount tales of miracles and supernatural events, readers were happy to believe them. In the mid-1800s it was still scandalous when writers such as David Strauss and Ernst Renan began to challenge the historical basis of the Bible, but at least they weren’t burnt at the stake.

Two movies this week made me think about how we might look at the life of a saint today. Paul: Apostle of Christ is yet another Hollywood bio pic of one of the great figures of Christian tradition. Although Jesus laid the groundwork it was St. Paul who turned an unorthodox Jewish sect into a religion.

Andrew Hyatt’s movie catches up with Paul as he awaits his fate in a Roman prison, while the Emperor Nero is using Christians as human torches to light up his garden parties. In the manner of this latest wave of religious films there is a lot of talk punctuated by flashbacks in which the salient events of Paul’s life are recalled. It’s all being written down by Luke (Jim Caviezel), who is compiling his Gospel.

Historians would first quibble about James Faulkner’s impersonation of Paul, who was described in the Apocrypha as being small and bandy-legged. Faulkner looks far too strapping for the part, even in his prison cell.

To convey the essential goodness of the saints to a mass audience, filmmakers have always made them handsome types. Pasolini is the shining exception, with his ugly, cranky, peasant Jesus in The Gospel Acording to St. Matthew (1964). To make the message widely accessible most directors rely on a form of realism that resembles a TV soap opera. Garth Davis does this with Mary Magdalene, and Hyatt does the same with Paul.

The result is that Paul loses his aura as one of the most enigmatic and electrifying figures in the New Testament – the man who said Jesus would come like a thief in the night – and becomes a mere talking head. It probably doesn’t help that his Roman captor, Mauritius, (Olivier Martinez) has an accent reminiscent of the Cisco Kid’s offsider, Pancho.

One might compare this pedestrian portrait of St. Paul with the character of Waldemar Wikström in Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope. Paul was a man of contradictions who began as a persecutor of Jesus’s followers and became the most fervent of disciples. Waldemar (Sakari Kuosmanen) is an equally contradictory figure. He begins the film as a 60-year-old travelling salesman, who decides to change his life. He leaves his wife and goes off to play high-stakes poker with some unsavoury characters. His winnings are invested in a rundown restaurant which he transforms into a sushi joint.

When Waldemar’s story intersects with that of Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee who has escaped to Finland on a coal boat, the two men fight and bop each other on the nose. Then Waldemar offers Khaled a job.

Like St. Paul, Waldemar embraces a new life and practises a kind of charity born solely from feelings of sympathy and shared humanity. In other places the refugees are met with the deadening force of bureaucracy, the suspicion of the general public and the aggressive hatred of skinhead groups. What comes naturally to Waldemar does not come at all to other people. In contemporary western society, he is a secular saint – flawed, but filled with kindness.

Kaurismäki is often described as a “minimalist” because he doesn’t waste time developing a plot or laying deep psychological foundations for his characters’ actions. In his movies we are genuine spectators obliged to judge people by what they do, rather than what they are. It’s a trait one also finds in Truffaut’s films.

Kaurismäki’s style is deadpan and broadly comical. He brings out the absurdity of everyday life, showing that it’s not necessary to conform to the same deadening routines as everyone else, or succumb to the same anxieties. Waldemar is a maverick yet he is not the least bit strident about his choices. Kaurismäki’s protagonists do not proselytise fom soap boxes. His films don’t hammer out moral lessons.

Where a movie like Paul: Apostle of Christ is puffed up with portentous dialogue, The Other Side of Hope has long silent passages. When the characters talk it’s for practical purposes. A friend at the hostel advises Khaled to smile during his refugee interview, as the sad ones get deported. On the street, however, he must keep a straight face at all times.

We feel the hollowness and absurdity of the refugee’s life – the need to be always appreciative of the country that offers sanctuary, even when it treats you like a criminal. Khaled is dogged by insecurity, but his benefactor, Waldemar, has embraced this state, having given up the stability of his previous existence. Perhaps this is the message of a contemporary saint: that somewhere between the pain of statelessness and the smothering conformity of most communities, there lies a promise of freedom.

The Other Side of Hope
Written & directed by Aki Kaurismäki
Starring Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen, Simon Al-Bazoon, Janne Hyytläinen, Ilkka Koivula, Nuppu Koivu, Niroz Haji, Kaija Pakarinen
Finland/Germany, rated M, 100 mins

Paul: Apostle of Christ
Directed by Andrew Hyatt
Written by Terence Berden, Andrew Hyatt
Starring James Faulkner, Jim Caviezel, Olivier Martinez, Joanne Whalley, John Lynch, Alessandro Sperduti
USA, rated M, 108 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 7 April, 2018