The place is Rome and the year is AD 67 in “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” an account of the biblical figure’s last days. Written and directed by Andrew Hyatt, and released under Sony Pictures’ Christian-oriented banner Affirm Films, it’s the rare biblical movie that actually tries to locate its story at a real-feeling moment in history. As characters talk of Nero’s erratic rule, his scapegoating of those who practice an unfamiliar religion and the potential for violent revolution, “Paul, Apostle of Christ” hints at political realities and complications that feel decidedly modern.
Paul, played by a stately James Faulkner, wastes away in a Roman prison, accused by Nero of helping start the Great Fire of Rome. Not far away, a local Christian group hunkers down in a secret headquarters run by the good-hearted Aquila and Priscilla (John Lynch and Joanne Whalley). From there, the apostle Luke (Jim Caviezel, a familiar face to faith-based audiences since playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”) pays regular visits to his old friend Paul. Meanwhile, the prefect who runs the prison, Mauritius (Olivier Martinez, rather good as a bureaucrat with a conscience), debates whether to ask Luke, a Christian physician, to help his dying daughter.
Why, though, did the movie start Paul’s story here? In flashbacks, we see a far more fascinating narrative: Paul’s days as Saul of Tarsus (played by Yorgos Karamihos), a brutal persecutor of innocent Christians. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is one of the most electrifying and fascinating moments in the Bible — why aren’t we experiencing that? “Paul, Apostle of Christ” could have grabbed that material with both hands and wrangled with some truly compelling issues of sin, forgiveness, mercy and mystery.
Instead, “Paul, Apostle of Christ” mostly limits us to the inside of a dark cell as Luke and Paul hold a conversation — and not much of one at that. Because the two men are so alike, there’s no argument or debate; they mostly just shore up each other’s opinions and confirm each other’s faith. With so much dramatic and thematic potential in this biblical story, “Paul, Apostle of Christ” feels like a missed opportunity.