A Winsomely Earnest Portrait of Early Christians Under Persecution
Ever since The Passion of the Christ became a box-office smash back in 2004, Christian audiences have received a whole collection of movies specially produced to uphold their faith in Jesus Christ, as well as the values inherent to that worldview. That movement has mainly consisted of titles made by professionals with backing from studios such as Pure Flix and Affirm Films. But it has also included churches or even families daring to experiment with filmmaking.
Case in point: Polycarp is a 2015 drama that’s largely a family project. It was directed by a 19-year-old (Joe Henline), written by his 21-year-old sister (Jerica), and executive produced by their father (Jerry). The budget was partly secured through a Kickstarter campaign, and the filmmakers used landscapes and a studio warehouse in Ohio as the stand-ins for their story’s setting of 2nd-century Turkey. (No, I’m not kidding.)
Don’t worry; the result is much more than just the filmed Vacation Bible School skit that I had imagined. And I’m glad that this movie received several honors at the Christian Worldview Film Festival (Franklin, TN), including Best Feature Film and the Audience Choice Award.
Polycarp’s plot takes place in Smyrna around 150 AD and centers on Anna (Eliya Hurt), a teenage girl who has long been accustomed to the harsh life of a slave. A Christian family purchases her from a market and then proceeds to free and adopt her, but Anna proves unable just yet to readily accept care and affection from others. Not to mention, she is unfamiliar with the one, true God whom Christians worship, having only heard up to now about the Roman gods.
As she steadily gets used to her new life, she has encounters with Polycarp (Garry Nation), a real-life bishop who has been discipled by the apostle John and boldly preaches truth. Anna finds herself challenged to decide what she believes, especially as the local proconsul begins demanding that citizens worship Caesar under threat of imprisonment and execution.
As compliments go, I would like to begin by noting that early Christians facing Roman persecution is a context ripe with dramatic potential. Whether or not the Henlines do justice to that potential, they can at least be commended for selecting inspired subject matter that has almost never been done on film. The context is a fitting wake-up call for us as Christians who can easily become indifferent in our devotion to the Lord amid the freedoms and comforts of contemporary America.
I can also compliment the cast members, all of whom fill their roles nicely and deliver solid performances. Eliya Hurt (who was 14 during production) gives an impressive turn for her age as the protagonist and nearly compensates for spots where the script doesn’t quite earn Anna’s arc of growth. Also, the acting from Hurt is enough for us to sense the hopelessness and mistreatment that Anna has endured prior to meeting Christians. As for Garry Nation, he believably radiates warmth and assurance in the title role. His Polycarp is a grandfatherly type whom perhaps any believer would be glad to have as a spiritual mentor.
As much as the Henlines aggressively work to deliver a feel-good and unobjectionable experience, the writing includes surprising touches of honesty and realism. (For example, dialogue implies that Anna is in danger of getting sold into temple prostitution during the slave market scene. Plus, even the stalwart Polycarp can’t help weeping privately out of distress over the persecution faced by his fellow Christians.) The production design and costumes reflect considerable investment in historical research and attention to detail. And, with a running time of 93 minutes, Polycarp is never boring and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Sure, you can tell that the production had a shoestring budget. (The sets are often small and constricting enough to make the movie almost feel like a play. And the visual effects tend to be glaringly obvious, especially during crowd scenes.) In addition, the movie isn’t as emotionally potent as you might expect, especially considering that the story includes multiple characters becoming martyrs for the faith.
Even so, Christian viewers will find Polycarp to be homegrown and amateurish in a charming, rather than off-putting, way. As would be hoped, we can sense that this is the work of young, grassroots filmmakers having a blast with the resources at their disposal and accomplishing the best product they can.
In short, everything about Polycarp reflects the earnestness of the Henline family toward their project and the worldview it conveys. It’s endearingly warmhearted and sincere to a point that will please its target audience, including Christian families who seek a wholesome and enjoyable flick for viewing together at home. What is more, the movie is an ideal springboard into discussion between parents and their kids about what it means to follow Jesus Christ as Lord, even when that requires courage and sacrifice. Polycarp can also be a nice starting point for research and discussion on the history of early Christianity.
And there’s something to be said for how the making of the movie is a remarkable story in itself.
Note: Polycarp is available for viewing on DVD, Amazon Prime, and Pure Flix. If you see it on DVD, you might want to check out the special features, which include behind-the-scenes featurettes and a blooper reel.