The story is not without dramatic potential. In 67 A.D., as the Emperor Nero is scapegoating and massacring Christians for the Great Fire of Rome, the aging apostle Paul (James Faulkner) is incarcerated in the dank, dark Mamertine Prison. Luke (Jim Caviezel), the Greek physician who has already authored one Gospel, sneaks into Rome to try and gather Paul's last insights before the prisoner is put to death. Luke spends his time shuttling between Paul’s cell and the hideout where the city’s persecuted Christians are seeking refuge, under the guardianship of married couple Priscilla (Joanne Whalley) and Aquila (John Lynch).
Paul tells Luke of his past — the rage and vengeance of his youth, when he was known as Saul and hunted down Christians, of his visions and conversion on the road to Damascus, of his struggles to live a life of forgiveness and peace. (One of the most fascinating figures in Christianity, Paul has intrigued his share of filmmakers; Pier Paolo Pasolini had planned to make an ambitious film about Paul, and Roberto Rossellini filmed Acts of the Apostles for Italian TV; my favorite cinematic depiction of this murderer-turned-holy man, however, remains Harry Dean Stanton’s memorable turn in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.) Meanwhile, Mauritius (Olivier Martinez), the prefect of the prison where Paul is being kept, has a daughter who is dying of a mysterious ailment. Mauritius has tried all the physicians in the city, and he has pleaded with Rome’s gods, to no avail. Guess which physician he hasn’t asked yet — and which god.
Intercut with Paul and Luke's conversations, we see the hiding Christians debating whether to flee Rome. Leaving would mean not only giving up their struggle, but abandoning those in the city who have yet to seek shelter with them; staying, however, will likely mean death. “We loved this city as our own,” Priscilla insists, wondering why, as Romans themselves, they should have to leave. “Now we see what it has become,” retorts Aquila, who’s convinced they must escape. (You can, of course, read into such conversations any modern-day resonance you wish; the film is dedicated to “all who have been persecuted for their faith,” which means that in today’s world, it’s pretty much dedicated to everybody.)
For perhaps both economical and evangelical reasons, writer-director Andrew Hyatt is relatively restrained in his depictions of the cruelty being enacted upon Christians, consigning the horror to brief moments. One of the more elaborately grisly sequences depicts Luke making his way at night through a street where screaming Christians are being set on fire to serve as lamps. Later, a young woman covered in blood is brought into the Christians’ hideout; she tearfully tells the assembled that the blood isn’t hers, but her child’s, and we see the arms of the parents in the crowd grasping and caressing their own kids.
Those scenes are effective and understated, but there is a bit of a mismatch here. Paul’s rejection of vengeance and anger, his conviction that love is everything and his insistence on forgiveness will stay simple, pretty pleasantries if we can’t feel the absolute horror and cruelty of the world against which they are spoken. In other words, restraint in this case threatens to dull the power of his sacrifice. But to go full-bore Grand Guignol with the material might alienate the film’s intended audience. That was, of course, the gamble Mel Gibson took with The Passion of the Christ, which paid off in his case. But Paul is an altogether more unassuming, modest effort, and to knock it for not being brutal or violent enough seems like exactly the kind of dick move an atheist film critic would make.
Instead, Hyatt finds some elegant, even touching ways around this problem. Delivered by Faulkner with embittered, conflicted nobility, Paul’s words are not those of a man who is serene and happy. At one point during their conversation, he speaks to Luke of love, echoing the immortal lines of his First Letter to the Corinthians. (“Love that is kind, that does not envy, that is not proud … Love that never delights in evil …”) It’s bracing to see these words — these wedding ceremony platitudes, so often delivered with earnest smiles and adoring glances — uttered by a grim old man in a dark cave waiting to be executed for a crime he did not commit. Mercy takes work.
In such subtle ways, the film occasionally transcends rhetoric. When Luke finds himself among a group of Christians who are to be fed to the lions the next day, he reassures them the pain will be momentary, that afterward they will all wake up happy and whole in heaven. Caviezel brings just enough trepidation to his delivery that we wonder how sincere Luke is about that whole momentary pain thing; he says later that he is haunted by their faces. The characters speak often of the promise of the afterlife, but they all seem to understand that the real struggle remains here, in the world at large. There’s little in Paul, Apostle of Christ that’s not predictable, but the film engages honestly enough with its ideas that at times it feels like a small … well, let’s not use the word “miracle” in this case. It doesn’t shy away from complexity, and for that we can all be grateful — believers and heathens alike.