There is simply no question that you can tell the difference between a film distributed by Pure Flix, a Christian-helmed indie distributor started by David A.R. White and Russell Wolfe with a specific vision for telling Christian and family friendly films, and the spiritually inspired yet more mainstream approach of Sony's faith-based branch, Affirm Films, a distribution arm that still largely targets evangelical Christians but is clearly more motivated toward achieving crossover appeal.
Affirm's latest film is Andrew Wyatt's Paul, Apostle of Christ, a film that could best be described as being inspired by Scriptural truths rather than serving as a strict retelling of biblical writings. While this doesn't and shouldn't necessarily matter, unless you're the type who believes that Larry the Cucumber actually did live in biblical times, it's worth noting because Paul, Apostle of Christ as an evangelistic tool may require more than a little bit of explaining given the film's creative license with its basic storyline.
The film stars veteran character actor James Faulkner (Game of Thrones) as Paul, whom we initially meet in his 60's after he's been imprisoned by Nero and faces likely execution as Nero has been wont to do to just about anyone who claims Christianity. The time period is right about A.D. 67 and the rather haggardly looking Paul still inspires the surrounding Christians even as they wrestle with whether or not to flee the city or stay and fight for their faith.
Before long, Paul is visited by Luke (Jim Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ), who believes it is essential to document Paul's story and sets out with a vision of doing so. While it may seem like we're in for yet another flashback film, rather wisely Paul, Apostle of Christ doesn't really spend that much time pursuing one of the least convincing gimmicks known to cinema. While we do encounter younger Paul (played by Yorgos Karamihos), Hyatt has, for better and worse, chosen to limit much of the film to Paul's final months in Rome and the creation of Acts of the Apostles (ie, the Book of Acts).
The approach that Wyatt takes is rather intriguing and involving, though one can't help but note that it's not particularly accurate if one concerns themselves with extensively documented biblical history. Much of the story that unfolds in Paul, Apostle of Christ is spiritually attuned yet fictional given the lack of writings specific to this particular period in Paul's life. While a film based upon early Paul wouldn't exactly be unique, it seems rather inevitable that theologians, preachers and purists will be less likely to embrace a film that doesn't immerse itself in known truths.
This isn't to say that Paul, Apostle of Christ is a bad film. In fact, it's a beautiful film to behold with its Malta setting and Gerardo Madrazo's lensing working together to give the film constant visual appeal. The film's casting, especially that of Faulkner and Caviezel, is also absolutely inspired with both experts at bringing this type of material to life.
The gift of Paul, Apostle of Christ, at least for this writer, is that it intimately and eloquently examines Paul's life journey and his own self-examination. Luke risks his like to visit Paul, as both physician and friend, while Paul has lived a miraculous life surviving the seemingly unsurvivable yet now finds himself in perhaps his bleakest situation yet and struggles inwardly with his past choices. Even as a man of deep faith, he struggles with that feeling of abandonment and even doubt. Amidst all the glory of such a historical setting, Paul, Apostle of Christ is a quietly intimate film that brings forth lessons in friendship, faith and hope.
In addition to the two top notch leading performances, John Lynch shines as Aquilas, whose presence here adds a sense of vitality the story along with that of Joanne Whalley, portraying his wife Priscilla. Olivier Martinez has the obligatory role as a Roman with doubt, in this case Paul's main jailer who despises Christians but whose own daughter is ill and beyond the healing powers of his fellow Romans.
Do you really need to ask? Martinez, unfortunately, isn't quite up to the task of portraying a character of such emotional complexity and depth.
For the most part, Paul, Apostle of Christ, approaches its story from a theology more familiar to those of the Catholic faith, not particularly surprising given Caviezel's Catholic background. The story, for much of its running time, lacks the sense of urgency and conflict that we're told about in Aquilas's encounters with Luke. While this doesn't doom the film, it does mute its impact considerably and what could have been an incredibly effective film becomes a merely competent one.
For Christians, March seems to be a good month at the box-office with I Can Only Imagine opening last weekend, Paul, Apostle of Christ opening this weekend, and Pure Flix's God's Not Dead 3 opening up next weekend. While I can't quite say that we've covered the theological spectrum here, it's certainly rare to have three faith-based studio releases in one month and one can't help but expect that God's Not Dead 3 may very well join I Can Only Imagine in achieving some degree of box-office success while this film seems destined for a more successful life on home video.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic