Israeli-French documentarian Abraham Segal’s latest adds another chapter to the investigation of pivotal biblical figures begun in 1996’s “The Abraham File.” Marginally less satisfying than that effort, “The Mystery of Paul” nonetheless provides a stimulating, respectful, nonsectarian overview of what is known and speculated about St. Paul, the apostle who founded (with Paul) Christianity — and ergo can be held responsible for its split from Judaism. Global TV and educational sales are signaled.
Paul aka Saul of Tarsus wasn’t one of the original 12 apostles. According to legend, he led a somewhat disreputable life (including participation in the martyrdom of Stephen, the first saint) before converting on the road to Damascus; he did not encounter Jesus until the Resurrection. Seeking to unify all peoples in one faith, his writings and preachings modified or discarded various sacred Jewish laws, creating controversy among Jews (and a personal split with Peter) even as this proselytizing attracted hostile interest elsewhere. (Ending life as a prisoner of the Roman Empire, Paul was most likely beheaded in Rome late in the first century.)
Was Paul a traitor to Judaism or the “true” faith’s visionary architect? Segal finds no end of interpretations as his camera roams the Middle East, Europe and beyond, tracing Paul’s travels as well as interviewing everyone from rabbis, priests, theologians and Biblical scholars to Protestant school children and a born-again NYC cabby.
While results raise more intriguing contradictions than clear answers, pic does vividly contextualize Christianity’s origins in the era’s complex ethnic/religious/political infrastructures — and underlines the enormous role that an individual can play in shaping (or re-shaping) beliefs, customs, and sectarian divides for generations, even millennia to come.
Neither dry nor pandering, though a bit too intellectual for sub-adult viewers, evenly paced feature holds interest through its globe-hopping, rather loosely organized vignettes.
Segal’s device of using an on-camera interviewer-cum-protagonist (actor Didier Sandre) as our guide muddies the line between docu and docudrama a bit, especially when Sandre himself is quizzed for opinions — is he speaking for the filmmaker? As himself? And are his questions elsewhere scripted or impromptu?
Tech aspects are high-grade, with 35mm lensing taking full advantage of evidently well-funded prod’s wide-ranging locations.