An Interview with Filmmaker Robert Orlando

robert orlando

This article was originally part of The Paul Page, a site dedicated to academic study of the apostle, with special focus on the work of N.T. Wright.

Robert Orlando is a writer, director, and editor who also happens to have studied with Alan F. Segal, author of Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee. Orlando is creating a new documentary named Paul: The Greatest Story Never Told. According to Segal, “Robert Orlando promises a breakthrough film on Paul. He combines real expertise and creativity in film-making with a sophisticated knowledge of the New Testament and the Pauline literature within it. No one has previously been able to combine these talents before. His film will be the first to capture an audience and still remain accurate and informative.”

I interviewed Orlando for The Paul Page in March 2005.

PP: What is it that motivates a film noir director with a penchant for Jungian psychology to explore the story of Paul?

RO: Film noir is a genre for people who are intrigued by the dark or the unknown. In that sense it is a religious impulse that attracts the audience. To some degree one of the noir antecedents is Edgar Allen Poe, and no one is going to say that he was not religious — religious from the dark side. The same for Jung, who, unlike Freud, believed that spiritual impulses were part of mankind, not a neurosis.

I do believe at times that religion can be the result of bad faith, or an unhealthy way to deal with the real world. But from my experience, engaging the religious spectrum, belief works for some people in a positive way! God bless them.

So, why Paul? In no uncertain terms, Paul is simply the most dramatic and influential figure in Western history. The amazing thing is that people don’t know this. Well, people didn’t know this until now. After this film, they’ll never be the same.

PP: The trend of examining Paul in the context of Roman imperial culture is a recent one. Is this just one more academic fad, or is new ground really being broken? Do you think we’re really in a position, now, to become better acquainted with the Paul who traveled those ancient Roman roads?

RO: The simple answer is that understanding Rome is understanding Paul. Paul did not make total sense to me until I began to study and imagine him in light of a Roman context. Think of the language he is using, like gospel or Good News (evangelion), which is the proclamation issued by Caesar during his return from battle. The same for Savior and Son of Man. Ideas about the Lord’s Table and eating flesh and blood. His metaphors which echo with soldiers training or epistles that use common styles of Roman rhetoric.

After the older notion of Jesus as a Jewish Messiah had died out, Paul refashioned the Messiah as a spiritual replacement for the earthly Caesar. He was saying: You see the power of your King? Well you should not fear him, because there is a king who lives above this world who will conqueryour king when he returns through the clouds!

PP: Up until the 1970s, the Protestant Christian interpretation of Paul seems to have been typically uniform. Since then a wide range of scholars, Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic, have been vigorously redrawing the contours of the debates about Paul. What are these debates accomplishing?

RO: As professional storytellers we are always reshaping the world in dramatic terms, just like a theologian might in systematic (logical) terms. Therefore the more info, the better. The more background on the setting, characters, and actions, the clearer the story. This new wave of scholars has made the first century come alive. They have broken through the “robe dramas” where ethereal men with halos drift across the desert sand proclaiming absolute truth. This was never real to me. Even as a kid, I remember this not feeling true. Something a little too holy was going on. Where is the blood? The mystery? The ambiguity? Doesn’t anyone have a doubt about anything?

Now with Paul: The Greatest Story Never Told, the genie is out of the bottle. Jesus is not who we’ve been told he is. His disciples did not have a consensus. There was never a true Christianity and the rest heresies. This is all simplistic thinking, which might comfort us short term, but long term it is destined to pass away. Jesus was profoundly pro-law and pro-Jewish. So were most if not all of his followers with the exception of Paul, which is why he was in so much trouble. Also it is why Paul’s Hellenized version of Christianity survived.

PP: Your take on this brings to mind a provocative scene in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” where Paul actually argues with the historical Jesus about the Christ of faith. Is that an accurate comparison?

RO: Scorsese and Paul Schrader (the screenwriter) were trying to show how Paul was transforming the Messianic Jewish figure, who was crucified, into a cosmic spiritual divine savior. I do believe this is what happened. But making the Paul character sound like a used car salesman was so anachronistic. I don’t think Paul was consciously deceiving people. That’s a 20th-century mind reading back into history. However, I do think Paul was very capable of self-deception. That’s what makes him so interesting. He was a man of extremes — love and venom in a manic exchange. That’s great drama!

PP: Come on now, that’s a pretty controversial assessment. You’re not trying to tell us that you don’t have an axe to grind, are you?

RO: No axe. Maybe a chisel. Maybe a desire to chip away at the modern tendencies (in all religions) to slip toward fundamentalism. My closest friends and film industry people who know me as “The Paul Director” saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ last year and said, “You must make your Paul film.” So I did. Partially because they witnessed the power of religious subject matter on the big screen. Also, they thought, if a film like The Passion, which was done in a heavy-handed way could reach so many, or the conspiracies of The Da Vinci Code could capture a modern audience, how much more impact would a story have about the most powerful figure in western history!

PP: How would you compare your documentary with “The Passion of the Christ”?

RO: I wish I was in Mel’s position now. I grappled for many years with what the truth would be when it was my turn to tell the Christian story.

After seeing how well Gibson did portraying the traditional gospel view of Christianity (and the Jews), it was not an easy choice to go in a different direction. As a matter of fact, considering how much easier following his footsteps would have been, I know I’ve chosen a more difficult road.

In my opinion, religion — and especially conservative Evangelical brands — are belief systems that are verified solely by an emotional experience: Something that happens to a person in a very deep place that cannot be challenged. We see this also with Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism. So the most difficult thing in the world is to challenge someone whose existential meaning is attached to a certain belief. To ask them to step back and be historically objective or even critical seems impossible. But I believe that the critical mind plays this role for us. It was a Greco-Roman idea that reason could temper the passions toward the extremes of self-delusion.

There were many versions of Christianity that existed in the first century. We know of only a few, because once Constantine determined the orthodox position, the rest were burned or buried. So when we read the New Testament, we are reading the edited views of “the powers that be.” Gibson leaned heavily on the gospels, which we assume tell us the true story of Jesus. But the gospels (scholars will argue over dating) with Acts come long after Paul’s writings and very long after the crucifixion of Christ. The early church went from being predominantly Jewish to predominantly Greek. There is one very clear reason: the fall of Jerusalem. Jesus’ brand of Messianic Judaism, which was continued by his brother James, was the first center of Christianity. Paul had ideas of his own which they did not like. Though they came to some tenuous agreement, Paul’s entire mission was antagonized by James and his “spies.”

But when Rome sacked Jerusalem and crushed the Temple, the Jews no longer had a home. They were condemned to be a diaspora community from then on. When Luke gets around to his version of Christianity (90-120 A.D.?), he is writing beneath the Roman shadow, showing that the Messianic Jesus was no longer a threat. It was not the Romans, but the Jews who killed Jesus. He was trying to defend all that had happened and shape it into a new story. This agenda writing is going on constantly in the New Testament. Conservative Christians will say it was the Holy Spirit leading these writers. I don’t buy that. And it’s not my job to speculate about God’s intentions; I’m only dealing with the human vessels. To speak as if our opinions are one with God is too hard-core for me.

The Passion took the hard line on the Jews which has been the accepted point of view for 2,000 years. However, the world was never as black and white as this. Not all Jews killed Jesus. And not all Pharisees — as the Bible testifies — were killers or deceivers. It was a mixed batch from the Jewish and Greek side. Just like today, you had the hard-core right and left and moderates in the center. I’m not saying the Jews did not have a hand in killing Jesus or his brother James, but it was the way Gibson portrayed these events that people reacted to. It was just too “in your face,” like an action film where the plot (action) embodies the soul of the story. Characters are two-dimensional and the theme is very black and white, without nuance.

However, to his credit, Mel did not make a gospel story, he made a Passion play and that is what Passion plays do. They make you participate in the suffering of Christ, so you can purge your own sins — very Catholic stuff. I think as a filmmaker, his purpose was to say: Here it is, blood and guts and all, you deal with it! The problem is, he did it in such an historically simplistic way that it felt like borderline propaganda.

Written by
Mark M. Mattison

Mark M. Mattison is an independent scholar of early Christianity and Christian origins, with particular interests in the historical Jesus, Paul, extracanonical Gospels, feminist-liberationist theology, Christian mysticism, and Kabbalah.

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Written by Mark M. Mattison
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