The eventful life of Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of early Christians who was famously converted on the road to Damascus and became over the course of his missionary travels in many respects the real founder of the institutional church, is treated in a curiously staid and undramatic fashion in “Paul, Apostle of Christ.” While reverent and fairly accurate in terms of historical context, the film is wordy and somber rather than propulsive, thereby minimizing the urgency of Paul’s life in contrast to what it portrays as his ultimate message of hope and forgiveness.
As portrayed by James Faulkner, the Paul of Andrew Hyatt’s film is an elderly man ensconced in Rome’s Mamertine Prison. In the aftermath of the Great Fire of 64 AD, which Nero has blamed on the Christians, the emperor has initiated a persecution of the Christian community, and Paul is awaiting execution. Recently-arrived Greek physician Luke (Jim Caviezel), anxious to profit from his wisdom (which will inform both his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles), uses forged documents to make his way to Paul’s cell, and the two talk about the apostle’s life and teaching. A few simple flashbacks, most notably one depicting his conversion (with Yorgos Karamithos as the younger Paul), are included as illustrations, but for the most part the colloquies are purely verbal.
Meanwhile Luke periodically returns to the Christians in Rome, led by Paul’s followers Aquila (John Lynch) and Priscilla (Joanne Whalley), who are debating whether to remain in the city as witnesses to their faith or try to escape in the face of the imminent danger. Once again the debate is mostly in the form of conversation, though there is a brief sequence showing Christians being hoisted on crosses to be burnt and an episode in which a young boy named Tarquin (Daryl Vassallo) undertakes a dangerous mission to find a way out of Rome, with unfortunate results. Both incidents, however, are portrayed in very understated fashion.
Juxtaposed is a subplot about Mauritius Gallas (Olivier Martinez), the skeptical but intrigued commander of the Mamertinum, who instead of arresting Luke interviews him, and Paul as well. Mauritius is, in fact, that old standby of Hollywood biblical epics, the good Roman, and when his daughter falls ill and pagan healers fail to cure her, he turns to Luke and Paul. The thread is reminiscent of stories told by the evangelists of course, though the introduction of his disparaging wife here adds a new element.
Presumably budgetary strictures are what compelled Hyatt to take this narratively confined mode of addressing the subject of Paul’s importance in the early church, but he manages at least to present the story in terms that are sincere without turning too heavy-handed. He’s aided in this by performances from Faulkner, Caviezel, Lynch and Whalley that are, if anything, overly restrained, though Martinez by contrast overplays the smooth cynicism turned incipient belief of the officer who’s none too pleased with his current posting, especially since he knows what he will eventually have to do about Paul. (The exact nature of his martyrdom is not recorded in Scripture, giving rise to various legends and allowing Hyatt to make his own decision about it.)
The picture’s ambience is assisted by the Maltese locations, which add a sense of visual authenticity, and Luciano Capozzi’s costumes, while Gerardo Madrazo’s cinematography is more workmanlike than inspired, but certainly adequate. Scott Richter’s editing doesn’t avoid lethargy, but Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s score only occasionally becomes overpowering.
“Paul, Apostle of Christ” should prove an acceptable Easter experience for the faithful, but one can certainly imagine a telling of the saint’s extraordinary life that would have had far more dramatic vigor than this talky overview.