“Paul, Apostle of Christ” is an intimate, conversational film of the last days of the Apostle Paul, the Pharisee (Jewish zealot/judge) and persecutor of Christians who had the original “Come to Jesus” moment on the Road to Damascus. He became the prophet who developed and enforced early Christian dogma and passed it on through his epistles — long, discursive letters to the Corinthian, Galatian and Roman Christian communities — and his travels.
Half of the New Testament can be attributed to his writings, “definitive” accounts of testimony about the actions, life and teachings of Jesus — not witnessed first-hand, but collected from those who said they had and from Paul’s own visions, three encounters with Jesus (post mortem) recounted in the Acts of the New Testament.
A story worth telling? Most certainly. But worth a better storyteller than was entrusted here.
In the movie, Paul (James Faulkner, a character actor still known for playing King Herod on TV’s “I, Claudius”) is in prison in Rome, and in 67 A.D., the Romans are literally feeding Christians to the lions.
Christianity has spread over much of the Mediterranean. But with so little written down, the threat of a watering down of the faith via false teachings, phony Jesus accounts and the like, and Paul no longer traveling and “correcting” the record, is real.
That’s why Luke (Jim Caviezel of “The Passion of the Christ”), a physician later canonized as St. Luke the Evangelist, has shown up. He needs to put Paul’s final thoughts down on paper, a last gasp at synthesizing the still-new religion for now and forevermore.
At least until the Council of Nicaea, 250 years later, when the Christian Bible was edited into something resembling its current form.
The story’s urgency is conveyed by the furtive nature of Luke’s meeting with the (literal) Christian underground. John Lynch (“The Secret Garden”) is Aquilas, who lays it all out for the future saint (Luke was Greek) when they finally meet.
“Rome is stained with the blood of our brothers and sisters.”
“I’ve never seen Rome darker,” adds Aquila’s wife Priscilla (Joanne Whalley, recently seen as a nun in TV’s “Daredevil”).
Christians are a threat to the Empire, Nero has decreed.
But Luke’s imprisonment, even after he’s been moved to a dungeon, is lax enough that Luke can see him to take dictation and confide in the Voice of the Church. What he tells Paul, about unrest within the community, a determination by many to take the fight to the Romans, earns lecturing messages to be taken back to that community.
“Evil can only be overcome with good.” Luke underscores this when he passes Paul’s words on to the Faithful with an emphatic “Love is the only way.”
If that’s too subtle, Priscilla chisels this line in stone.
“Christ asked us to care for the world, not rule it!”
Paul, in his conversations with Luke, flashes back to his younger days, persecuting Christians and “blinded by the light” of his encounter with Jesus, his sight only restored by the Christian healer Anainis (Manuel Cauchi).
Meanwhile, his Roman jailer (Olivier Martinez of “Unfaithful” and “The Physician”) holds them all in contempt, but has his own crisis of faith looming. His daughter is sick, and no Roman physician or Roman gods can save her. What about “the Greek,” this Christian fellow who keeps meeting that trouble-maker Paul?
If you’re going to make a movie set during the Roman Empire, Malta is the most authentic-looking location you could choose. And writer-director Andrew Hyatt, who earlier tried his hand at horror (“The Frozen,” “The Last Light”) and failed, assembled an impressive cast for this handsomely-mounted Biblical story.
But Hyatt isn’t very good at getting across the urgency of the story, and for all the suggestions of torture (“Another 20 lashes!”) and scenes of prisoners being burned, the picture lacks drama or the tension that an account — based on the New Testament’s “Acts” and Christian tradition — might have had.
Faulkner’s Paul looks right, bald, bearded, weary but righteous — “I boast only of my weaknesses!” But his mostly-whispered performance has few moments with a fiery human spark to them.
“You speak as if you have never heard the words of Christ!”
Having his jailer as Paul’s only foil puts pressure on the French actor Martinez, and there’s no intellectual heft, no menace and little heat in their encounters.
Nowhere in the Bible does it say how Paul died, but Catholic tradition dating from a few decades after his death says he was martyred by order of Emperor Nero. Nero and the Great Fire of Rome that occurred during his reign (Catholic tradition says Nero blamed Christians for starting it) are mentioned several times in “Apostle.” And speaking in strictly dramatic terms, the movie sorely misses Nero’s actual malevolent presence.
Lacking that conflict, and with slack pacing that fails to maximize the rising panic of a community hunted and under threat of death in the Circus, without the budget to show us the horrors of that Circus, “Paul, the Apostle” just lumbers along between half-whispered Conversations with the Prophet.
Whatever a movie’s message, whatever value it to its intended audience, it’s an old movie maxim that sums up the shortcomings of this “Apostle.”
Think of Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” or Kevin Reynolds’ “Risen.” Good directors make good movies. “Paul” didn’t have one. And it shows.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violent content and disturbing images
Cast: James Faulkner, Jim Caviezel, Joanne Whalley, John Lynch, Olivier Martinez
Credits: Written and directed by Andrew Hyatt. A Sony Affirm release.
Running time: 1:49