With a title like Paul, Apostle of Christ, one might assume that the film is a story about, well, the guy with his name in the title. However, that's not the case. Instead of being a biopic about a particular man in the early days of Christianity, Paul, Apostle of Christ, instead, is a story about those days, which follows multiple characters near the end of the life of the guy with his name in the title.
The Great Fire of Rome burned a large portion of the city in 64 A.D. To this day, nobody really knows how the fire started, but at the time, Emperor Nero blamed a rising, and largely unpopular, religious sect known as Christianity. Many Christians were arrested, including a prominent figure known as Saul of Tarsus, or Paul, to use his Roman name. As the story opens, those Christians not yet arrested have gone into hiding in order to avoid death at the hands of lions or being burned in the street as human torches. This is the Rome that Luke (Jim Caviezel) has found when he arrives to offer what aid he can to the terrified Christians and his old friend Paul (James Faulkner).
The story of Paul is really broken up into three parts. The first sees Luke bribe his way into Paul's prison cell nightly in order to record as much of his friend's life as possible before his near-certain execution. The second follows the Christians in hiding, mainly represented by a couple (Joanne Whalley and John Lynch), which everybody else looks to for guidance, as they try and decide if they should stay in Rome and help those in need as their faith would require, or escape Rome so that they may live to help others in the future. The third focuses on the prefect of the prison holding Paul (Oliver Martinez) who is praying to his own gods, thus far to no avail, to heal his sick daughter. You get no points for predicting where that plot line goes. This last thread feels unnecessary as the payoff isn't required for the rest of the movie to work. If the other areas of the movie had been given more space to be developed, it would have only benefitted the whole.
The scenes between Jim Caviezel and James Faulkner are simple, just a couple of actors talking for the most part, but they're the heart of Apostle of Christ and the part that works the best. While seeing Caviezel speak of Jesus in the third person, after the actor famously played the character in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, feels a little strange at the outset, the actor is clearly at home in roles like this, showing a deep personal strength using few if any words. Faulkner is an equally impressive Paul, the world-weary traveler who is mostly at peace with his life as he comes to what he knows to be its end.
If there's a real star of Paul, Apostle of Christ, however, it's the visual style that creates this world. A strong combination of costumes, cinematography, and set design come together to turn 21st century Malta into first century Rome in a believable and remarkably transportive, way.
While Paul, Apostle of Christ is clearly designed for a particular subset of the moviegoing public, it does a better job than some in the genre in making the story mostly accessible to those that don't necessarily ascribe to the belief system. You don't have to believe to understand the plight of those being persecuted and not every Christian responds to said persecution in the same way, making them all feel real and relatable. These aren't idealized versions of the faithful, but actual people presented with actual problems that no supernatural force is going to fix for them.
Having said that, the movie does itself few favors in making Paul's story less accessible to those who weren't already familiar with it. The segments of the film that see Luke recording Paul's life are often accompanied by half out of focus flashbacks with little to no description of what we're seeing. It feels like the movie assumes the audience already knows the story, and so it doesn't need to go into detail. As somebody who isn't intimately familiar with Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book of the New Testament from which this portion of the plot is taken, I learned just enough about Paul's early life to wish the filmmakers had made that movie instead of this one.
Several stories from the Bible have made into memorable movies that can be enjoyed regardless of faith. Paul, Apostle of Christ falls well short of those movies, though it seems unlikely that was the goal.
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