'Paul, Apostle of Christ': Film Review

The passion is missing.

Andrew Hyatt's biblical drama stars James Faulkner as Saint Paul and Jim Caviezel as Saint Luke.

The life of the crucial evangelist Paul has everything needed for a powerful film, but the filmmakers picked the wrong part of his life to dramatize in Paul, Apostle of Christ, a soupy, conjectural take on how the widely traveled proselytizer came to produce his account of spreading Jesus' word throughout the Mediterranean world.

Fourteen years after The Passion of the Christ, Jim Caviezel here returns to scriptural film fare, not as Paul, but as Luke, a younger Christian who tracks the older man to a prison in Rome and spurs him to tell his tale. Glossy and prettified enough to almost pass as Sunday school fare, this modestly budgeted Sony project has clearly been tailored to faith-based American audiences, who will decide for themselves whether to widely support this pre-Easter release.

The life story of Paul, formerly Saul, contains enough epic drama, significant characters, exceptional incident and theological magnitude for a multiple-hour miniseries. Instead of dramatizing his driven and adventurous life, the film mostly shows him in confinement in an amazingly immaculate, nicely lit and spacious dungeon.

Saul was well-educated, a Jew as well as a Roman citizen, a man who never met Jesus but, while the latter was still alive, aggressively hunted and arrested his followers. Saul's dramatic conversion to the new religion upon encountering the just-resurrected Jesus (a world-changing event weakly enacted here in flashback) spurred years of perilous journeying, and it's unlikely that Christian beliefs would have taken root to nearly the extent they did, or at least in the same way or as quickly, without his restless evangelizing throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Paul on display here is an old man scapegoated, along with others of his faith, for allegedly having set fire to Nero's Rome. But while other prisoners are lathered up to become human torches, Paul suffers quietly at the Mamertine prison under the watchful eye of prison chief Mauritius Gallas (Olivier Martinez, striking an amusing succession of brooding Marlon Brando poses). A disgraced army officer, Mauritius detests his posting here and hopes to regain Nero's good graces by providing “proof” that the Christians were behind the blaze.

One of the primary axioms of drama is to show rather than tell, and it's here that Paul commits its cardinal sin, with Luke coaxing Paul through his extraordinary first-hand story. In and of themselves, the conversations between the two men are passably interesting and capably enacted by Caviezel and James Faulkner, the latter a very fit-looking prisoner. There's a half-hearted attempt to create suspense by having Mauritius confiscate the manuscript of the narrative, and yet more manufactured melodrama when the magistrate's young daughter becomes deathly ill and brilliant physician Luke steps in to save her after Roman doctors have thrown up their hands.

But all this Italian-set melodrama feels hokey, cooked up and, in the end, not what we want to be seeing. Much more compelling would have been a gritty and gutsy presentation of key episodes of Paul's epic journeys that changed the religious face of the world — his frustrations and triumphs, the adversity, the breakthroughs and Paul's undeterred compulsion to spread the word. It's hard to believe that such a version of the story would not have had a significantly greater effect on the target audience for this kind of faith-based fare; such a telling, if well done, could conceivably have carried enough dramatic and historical import to appeal even to a portion of the lay audience.

Instead, we have a monotonous conjectural melodrama for the faith-based crowd that does nothing to reach out to others. It does indicate how a very important seed was planted for the blossoming of Christianity, but is banal where it needed to be charged with passion and a palpable religious compulsion of its own.

Production company: ODB Films
Distributor: Sony
Cast: Jim Caviezel, Olivier Martinez, James Faulkner, Joanne Whalley, John Lynch, Alessandro Sperduti, Yorgas Karamihos, Antonia Campell-Hughes, Manuel Cauchi, Noah Huntley, Kenneth Spiteri, Alexandra Vino, John-Paul Pace, Erica Muscat, Jacob Grotti
Director: Andrew Hyatt
Screenwriter: Andrew Hyatt; story by Andrew Hyatt, T.J. Berden
Producers: T.J. Berden, David Zelon
Executive producers: Eric Groth, Rick Jackson, Harrison Powell, Jim Caviezel, Tony Hyler
Director of photography: Gerardo Madrazo
Production designer: Dave Arrowsmith
Costume designer: Luciano Capozzi
Editor: Scott Richter
Music: Jan A.P. Kaczmarek
Casting: Patricia DiCerto, Edward Said

Rated PG-13, 108 minutes