At one point in “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” a Roman prefect (Olivier Martinez, sporting a Caesar haircut and a nearly unintelligible accent) refers to rumors that his captive, the early Christian evangelist Paul (James Faulkner), wields some kind of special power. In a world that idolizes DC and Marvel superheroes — “false gods,” in Old Testament parlance — that’s practically what it would take to get the attention of the moviegoing public these days, but alas, Paul’s power is of a less spectacular sort: He believes in the divine afterlife that awaits him following whatever martyrdom he must suffer at the hands of Roman emperor Nero, who has blamed the city’s fires on this scrappy religious cult.
Countering the CG bombast and apocalyptic doom and gloom of the modern blockbuster with a soft-spoken message of faith and love, “Paul, Apostle of Christ” struggles to find a compelling entry point to a critical period in the early Christian church, when Jesus’ message was carried forth not only by his disciples (those who followed him during his life) but also by a group of influential early converts who had never heard him preach firsthand — of which Paul, also known as Saul of Tarsus, was one of the most influential.
This was a period during which Christians were openly persecuted, crucified, burned at the stake, and thrown to the lions, all of which sounds like ample opportunity for a more excessive filmmaker to focus on the sort of details that have fueled many a blockbuster before (from “Caligula” to “Gladiator”). Director Andrew Hyatt (“Full of Grace”) does show one believer torched alive, as well as a few others still smoldering above the horrified pedestrians below. But this is not a sensationalistic film in the slightest, choosing instead to dramatize the deep feelings — conversion, doubt, forgiveness — that tend to defy easy representation in film.
It’s no coincidence that the movie borrows stylistic tropes — including disembodied voiceover, somewhat disorienting flashbacks, and a free-floating wide-angle camera — from “The Tree of Life” director Terrence Malick, who has wrestled with such theological concerns to varying degrees in his last half-dozen features. And yet, “Paul” follows a mostly linear narrative, beginning with the arrival in Rome of a Greek physician named Luke, the eventual author of Acts of the Apostles, who — at a time when the Roman guards are on high alert about a possible escape — arranges to have himself put in jail to document Paul’s teachings (which provides a chance for flashbacks to his conversion following a miracle on the road to Damascus, virtually the only aspect of the film directly inspired by Scripture).
Faith-based audiences will recognize Luke instantly, as he is played by Jim Caviezel, who out-suffered all previous on-screen Messiahs in Mel Gibson’s 2004 hit “The Passion of the Christ” (as a bonus, he also starred in Malick’s “The Thin Red Line”). Once lean and sharp, the actor’s heavily bearded face has filled out over the last decade or so, taking on a series of fine wrinkles around the eyes that convey a maturity and wisdom less evident in earlier performances. He’s a welcome sight, and one whose presence lends a certain legitimacy to a movie that at times feels just a notch above a community Christmas pageant, surrounded as he is by actors such as Joanne Whalley and John Lynch (outfitted in scratchy clothes and ill-fitting wigs), whose thinly written characters demand that they constantly furrow their brows in deep concern.
By shooting in Malta on locations that convincingly evoke the ancient world, Hyatt and his team achieve a relatively high production value for faith-based cinema (although it often feels underlit, with some scenes almost entirely lost in darkness). As suggested by the tense drumbeat score, the film succeeds in re-creating the palpable fear these early Christians must have struggled with at all times. Amid such life-and-death stakes, various characters’ decisions to forgo their personal safety seem all the more moving. That goes not only for Paul but also for members of his flock, including teenage orphan Tarquin (Daryl Vassallo), who undertakes a dangerous but essential mission, and Luke, who makes a climactic choice that potentially endangers his entire community.
Like its namesake, “Paul, Apostle of Christ” is dedicated to “all who have been persecuted for their faith,” though nothing about the film suggests tolerance of religions other than Christianity. As a final assignment in a college medieval history course, my fellow students and I were expected to write a 10-page essay summarizing the entire semester from a single prompt: “In the long run, who won, the Christians or the Romans?” This film depicts circumstances as they were in 67 A.D., but after Constantine converted to Christianity in the early 4th century, the persecuted became the powerful, and the church went on to sanction the execution of heretics, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and so on.
From the period in question, Luke’s writing stands as one of the few records, although the movie openly acknowledges that Luke may have taken liberties in his account, implying that Paul’s martyrdom (not described in Acts) may have been deliberately omitted in favor of his accomplishments. Meanwhile, Hyatt (who shares story credit with producer Terence Berden) invents an entirely new dramatic situation for the sake of the film’s climax — by far its most effective sequence (involving a medical miracle of sorts) — which foretells the way Christianity would win over the Roman Empire. As Paul puts it, “They will know us by our love.”