Paul, Apostle of Christ (M)
Rating: 2.5 / 5
At the end of Paul, Apostle of Christ, a note explains that the film is dedicated to those persecuted because of their faith—sadly, the film doesn’t display this adversity particularly well.
The introduction to the story is told through text on the screen, explaining that Emperor Nero has blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome and has imprisoned Paul (James Faulkner) for the crime. None of this action is shown— it’s as though the first 20 minutes were left on the cutting room floor.
Instead, the film begins with Luke (Jim Caviezel) sneaking through the streets of Rome, to a sanctuary where the persecuted Christians of the city have fled. He is greeted there by Aquila and Priscilla (John Lynch and Joanne Whalley), who lead the community. Other characters are introduced here too, but they only exist to advance the plot, which is one of the film’s greatest disappointments. Action occurs mostly off-screen and there isn’t enough of it to balance the heavy dialogue, which sounds awkwardly archaic at times.
It is in Paul’s dark cell where the film shines, owing to Faulkner’s portrayal of the apostle. Faulkner brings a gravitas to the role, with the subtle conviction of a man stripped of his freedom but not of his faith. His voice has an ancient quality befitting the portrayal of a biblical heavyweight, which is convenient considering how much you hear of it in the echoey den of Rome’s Mamertine Prison.
Luke visits Paul to document his life as told through vivid flashbacks, which are refreshingly abstract, and a shift in tone from the rest of the film. There is an unsettling contrast between these violent memories played out under the blue sky of Jerusalem and Paul’s claustrophobic cell. These scenes between Paul and Luke have a philosophical quality at odds with the rest of the film.
The prison is also where we meet the film’s character we are invited to loathe—Prefect Mauritius Gallas (Olivier Martinez), who as prison commander represents the authority of Rome. At the start of the film he is the main source of conflict, but as he becomes tolerant of Luke visiting Paul, he then becomes an ineffective villain. His relationship with his prisoner becomes surprisingly jovial at times—when not in his cell Paul accompanies Gallas on jaunts through the city gardens. Gallas becomes a sympathetic character, perhaps the most developed throughout the film, as he wrestles with his faith and his daughter’s mysterious illness.
Paul, Apostle of Christ is no Bible epic. The action scenes feel half-baked, betraying a sense that budget or time constraints limited the scope of the film. It would have been better had it abandoned the pretence of being an action film and further explored the backstory of its title character—the glimpses of Paul’s history suggest a story more interesting than the film’s actual narrative.
But if you can overlook these shortcomings, Faulkner gives a memorable performance.
Highlight: A magnificent performance by James Faulkner