Andrew Hyatt’s Paul, Apostle of Christ, an account of the last days of Saint Paul (James Faulkner), begins with his fellow evangelist, Luke (Jim Caviezel), sneaking into Nero’s Rome in the cover of night. The soundtrack thuds and, on cue, Luke strikes a pose for the camera. And as he skirts down a hallway, he brings to mind less an apostle than a member of the Assassin Brotherhood. Mercifully, much of the film isn’t pumped with that sort of brash action-movie sense of showmanship, though flashbacks to a young Paul’s violent opposition to Jesus’s sacrilegious followers are presented in the sort of slow motion that suggests an act of overcompensation. Otherwise, the film’s simple, redundant, but valuable moral lesson to its audience finds comfortable enough expression in an aesthetic that’s banal but impressively consistent.
Much of Hyatt’s film sees Luke darting back and forth between Rome’s Christian community and Mamertine Prison, where Paul is being held in an underground cell. Given the public’s general unfamiliarity with how scripture was confected, the film would have certainly benefited from, say, a Bressonian attention to the nuts and bolts of the transcription from oral tradition to written text. Certainly there’s a sense that a more intimate and philosophically reflective look at the fraught summits between Paul and Luke was sacrificed in order to make room for a needlessly prolonged subplot involving the prison’s prefect, Mauritius (Olivier Martinez), and the man’s sick daughter.
The unseen Nero casts a large shadow over the film’s Rome, where Christians are immolated and forced to live in the shadows. And yet Hyatt doesn’t exactly make us feel the horror of this oppression in the pit of our stomachs, and not because his camera literally turns away from the film’s most graphic depictions of violence. Paul, Apostle of Christ’s narrative takes place across conspicuously clean sets that, like the garden where Mauritius holds court and gives good face like Oleanna Tyrell, felt as if they were built yesterday. Which is to say, the perfect setting for a Sunday school lesson about rejecting violence. Luke tending to Mauritius’s daughter is an inevitability that weighs on the film almost as cumbersomely as Martinez’s accent. No less of a burden but far more purposeful is Paul’s oft-repeated “love is the only way,” a message that feels as necessary today as it was in A.D. 67.