Paul Apostle of Christ
3 stars
Director: Andrew Hyatt
Stars: Jim Caviezel, James Faulkner, Olivier Martinez
Duration: 108 mins
Class: 12
KRS Releasing Ltd

Rome, 67AD. Held prisoner by the tyrannical Emperor Nero, the apostle Paul (James Faulkner) is languishing in a dark and dank cell in the infamous Mamertine prison awaiting execution. 

He is visited by his friend Luke (Jim Caviezel), the physician and evangelist keen to document the last moments in Paul’s life. This is not only as a continuation to his eponymous gospel, but also to continue to spread the message of Jesus Christ and in doing so lay the foundation of the Catholic Church.

In the meantime, the devastation caused by the Great Fire of Rome has fuelled Nero’s determination to nip any budding Christianity in the bud, conveniently blaming the followers of Christ for the fire.

The emperor condemns them to all sorts of violent and brutal deaths including crucifixion, burning at the stake and throwing them to the lions. As Luke attempts his task without detection, a community of Christians debates whether to remain in the city or escape persecution to safer lands. In the meantime, Prefect Mauritius Gallas (Olivier Martinez), the man in charge of the prison, faces a crisis of faith of his own.

Whatever one’s religious beliefs, it is undeniable that the Bible features some formidable figures among those who have shaped Christianity, not least Paul. His is a fascinating journey, and one we are all too familiar with. It starts with his own persecution of Christians, when he was known as Saul of Tarsus, before (literally) seeing the light, leading to his conversion on that fateful journey to Damascus. 

His subsequent embracing of Jesus Christ as his saviour and his long spiritual journey took him and his evangelism to hundreds of thousands of people across the world – before his eventual capture, shipwreck on our isles and eventual imprisonment in Rome – is a story that deserves to be given the full epic treatment.

Will undoubtedly go down well with Maltese audiences as the Easter holidays end

However, writer and director Andrew Hyatt leaves all this extraordinary passage from Paul’s life to be told in soft-focus, slow-motion, dialogue-free and totally insubstantial flashbacks. He dilutes the dramatic impact of the events that shaped the man he was to become.

That the main story unfolds as Paul lives his final days in prison is not in and of itself a bad thing, given the commitment with which Faulkner tackles the role.

He cuts a striking figure with his bald pate, full beard, piercing blue eyes and overall intelligent and charismatic demeanour. He bears the physical and emotional scars of an extraordinary life lived on his expressive face as he looks back on his early days, while bearing the terrible fate that awaits him with gravitas and serenity; bloodied but unbowed, firm in his belief in his Saviour.

However, the emphasis is placed firmly on Luke, played by the top-billed Caviezel. I get the impression the actor never quite shook off the burden of playing Christ in The Passion of the Christ so many years ago. His face assumes a haggard, haunted expression that barely changes. He speaks his lines in a monotone, an almost-whisper that projects little genuine emotion or feeling, to the point his performance is rather, dare I say it, dull. 

Martinez fares little better, his heavy accent making what he says a little incomprehensible a lot of the time. He is not helped by a hackneyed sub-plot involving his dying child, his rage at the Roman gods he invokes to help her, to no avail. And no prizes for guessing who’ll step in to save the day when Roman doctors have given up on her.

The more interesting moments of a troubled Mauritius discussing matters of faith with Paul are all too fleeting.

Things do perk up slightly with the appearance of John Lynch and Joanna Whalley as Aquilla and Priscilla, the leaders of the persecuted Christians torn between staying in Rome or leaving, while trying to calm the hotheads in their midst who want to resort to violence to overthrow Nero.

Fittingly, the film was shot on location in Malta, the island of the titular figure. As usual, our limestone structures and unique natural light serve the production tremendously well, with plenty of locally-based talent both in front of and behind the cameras including many familiar faces (Manuel Cauchi, Chris Dingli, Antony Edridge and Erica Muscat, to name but a few). The film will undoubtedly go down well with Maltese audiences as the Easter holidays end.