It’s difficult to make compelling cinema out of saintliness. That’s why so many Biblical biopics from the contemporary Christian-movie industry land with a thunk. Faith-based films are often literal hagiographies, and it’s boring to watch one-dimensional piety stay static over two hours. As the Old Testament attests, even angels cut loose sometimes: An entire third of those winged servants rebelled against God to become demons.
The apostle Paul’s story is one of extremes, from his origins as a fearsome persecutor of Christians to a miracle-induced 180-degree turn that transformed him into an influential leader of the people he once tortured and killed. Unfortunately, very little of what makes his biography so riveting translates to the screen in “Paul, Apostle of Christ.” (So named, I guess, to differentiate him from the Seth Rogen-voiced extraterrestrial who flees Area 51 and befriends Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.)
Played by a commanding James Faulkner (“Da Vinci’s Demons”), this version of the apostle is a willingly passive icon, a prisoner of the Roman state who inspires his fellow Christians with his self-sacrifice but whose unwavering sermons some see as increasingly out-of-touch. Writer-director Paul Hyatt (“Full of Grace,” “The Last Light”) follows the current trend in mainstream studio biopics of tightly focusing on a single episode in a subject’s life.
Simply put, Paul’s final weeks in lockup don’t make for the most compelling angle through which to explore his life, but the setting of 67 CE Rome does initially offer an engaging snapshot of the fledgling church. Ultimately, the overstuffed, under-dramatized film fails to fully develop the stakes at hand, but it features more thoughtful world-building than most faith-based films, as well as a bracing honesty about the difficulty of reconciling idealistic credos with a harsh and unforgiving world.
In the year 67, the Christians of Rome are damned if they stay and damned if they leave. Under Emperor Nero (never seen), Christians are condemned to public burnings in the streets and lion maulings in Rome’s “circuses.” Paul has been accused of various acts of arson around the capital, fires for which many believe Nero himself is responsible. (We don’t see any of the latter, but that doesn’t impede the film’s occasional flirtations with garishness in its portrayal of early Christian martyrdom. At one point, a spurt of blood after a violent encounter hits the ground in pornographic slo-mo.)
Some Christians want to flee, others to remain, and a very few to pay back Nero’s violence with blood. Luke (Jim Caviezel), a respected physician, sneaks into Paul’s cell to write down for Christian posterity the apostle’s last words.
Paul suffers guilt-drenched nightmares, but neither he nor Luke is truly involving. The film’s most interesting character, it turns out, is its most prominent non-Christian: the Roman prefect Mauritius (a notable Olivier Martinez), whose only child is ailing on her deathbed. It’s only a matter of time, of course, before Luke cures Mauritius’ young daughter. But the reluctant oppressor doesn’t want to admit a lowly Christian into his home and risk ostracization.
A violent veteran who has dedicated his life to enforcing Rome’s hierarchies, Mauritius also knows that the social order can be deeply unjust, especially under capricious rulers like Nero, and thus fears that that that discrimination can be used against him, too. Antonia Campbell-Hughes (“Bright Star”), playing Mauritius’ desperate wife, rounds out the unexpectedly great trio of performances.
Mauritius is constantly baffled by the Christians, particularly by Paul’s insistence that the marginalized religious group’s earthly status has no bearing on their spiritual standing. In the Roman’s view, a powerful god would make his followers powerful, too. (Some of the disgruntled Christians find their faith tested, too, by God’s seeming forsaking of his believers.) The cultural clashes between Paul and Mauritius feel refreshingly human — and far more politically pointed in these prosperity-gospel times — than the apostle’s otherwise mushy “love conquers all” teachings.
In a couple of scenes, light pours into the eyes and mouth of a grand gilded mask of a Roman deity’s visage. That visual flourish is easily the film’s most striking — and a conspicuous contrast to the rushed and cheesy rendition of Paul’s miraculous blinding on the road to Damascus, where the Lord converted the Christian tormentor into a believer. A few other New Testament details, like Paul’s married followers, Priscilla (Joanne Whalley) and Aquilla (John Lynch), feel equally shoehorned in.
Naturally, no sticking points about Paul’s legacy, like his (disputed) rejection of female church leaders, make it into Hyatt’s script. “Paul, Apostle of Christ” only makes a case for the disciple’s ascent to Heaven, not the complications or historical context that make him such a figure of fascination for millennia.