Faith-based movies have had a tough time finding a seat at the big screen table. Much of it is due to budget quality filmmaking. It can also be tough to get a look from more secular-minded moviegoers especially when the messaging is pretty heavy. And while hardly the case with every critic, it can be difficult for these movies to get an objective analysis. Take this quote from a review of the new film “Paul, Apostle of Christ” – “A Faith-based snuff flick with little appeal beyond the Bible-thumping demographic”. Ouch.
That’s one reason I appreciate Affirm Films, a label of Sony Pictures. While several of their productions are hampered by the above-mentioned problems, the label does offer an avenue for many of these movies to reach the big screen. “Paul, Apostle of Christ” is their latest and it’s definitely on their higher end in terms of quality yet not without a few quibbles.
Set in A.D. 67, the film takes place in Rome during a desperate time for the fledgling Christian church. Followers of Christ find themselves subjected to brutal persecution at the command of Emperor Nero. Some are burned alive on the streets. Others are thrown into the “Circus” where they are torn apart by lions for sport. Only a handful of the older church leaders were still alive. One was the Apostle Paul.
As the story begins Paul (a still, affecting portrayal by James Faulkner) is locked up in Rome’s Mamertine Prison. After several missionary journeys sharing the Words of Jesus and training young churches, the Apostle knows his remaining time on Earth is short. Yet while his body is tired and frail he maintains a heart full of faith, inspiring believers, many of whom hide away within the walls of the violent city. Among those believers is Aquilla (John Lynch) and Priscilla (Joanne Whalley), a couple who secretly shelters a small community of believers in Rome and who anxiously await a word from Paul.
In 2004 Jim Caviezel gave an intense, heart-wrenching performance as Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. Now 14 years later Caviezel portrays Luke, follower of Christ and writer of portions of the New Testament. Luke returns to Rome where he secretly meets with Paul and begins writing what will become The Acts of the Apostles.
Writer and director Andrew Hyatt carefully takes portions of scripture to form the framework of his story. Chunks of the film feature quiet, thoughtful jail cell conversations between Paul and Luke where the two reflect on Paul’s journeys and discuss faithfulness amidst persecution. Some of Paul’s signature life moments are touched on through dream-like flashbacks – the stoning of Stephen, his Damascus road conversion, just to name a few. Hyatt does a good job of showing the weight those events still have on Paul.
At the same time Priscilla and Aquilla struggle with a fracture among their community. Should they stay in Rome or attempt to leave? Should they take up arms and fight back? Another key figure is Mauritius (French actor Olivier Martinez), a Roman prefect put in charge of the Mamertine prison. He is a bit disillusioned with Nero’s leadership yet steadily loyal to Rome. He’s also fascinated by his enigmatic and most prominent prisoner.
The structure of “Paul” could be a stumbling block for some. You could definitely call the film a slow burn and it sometimes struggles to maintain a sense of dramatic tension. This is particularly noticeable through its middle act. Yet at the same time there is something about its quietness that works with the story being told. That’s not to say the film is a bore. Hyatt visualizes the brutality of the persecution, nothing on the level of Gibson’s “Passion”, but quite effectively. And the circumstances surrounding each of the characters lend to some satisfying individual story threads that make the movie work as a whole. That was more than enough for me. Hopefully it will be enough to find an audience because “Paul, Apostle of Christ” deserves one.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS