Some 14 years after Jim Caviezel poured heart and soul into his portrayal of Jesus in the brutal and powerful "The Passion of the Christ," he returns to the New Testament as the physician and disciple Luke in "Paul, Apostle of Christ."
This PG-13 interpretation of certain events in first-century Rome isn't nearly as blood-soaked as Mel Gibson's "Passion," but it's hardly sugarcoated children's fare either. It's an impressively staged, well-acted, thoughtful and faithful telling of the last days of the Apostle Paul — and how Luke risked his life again and again to visit his great mentor in prison and make a written record of Paul's life experiences and teachings.
"Paul, Apostle of Christ" is set in Rome, A.D. 67. (Malta stands in, quite believably, as ancient Rome.) Half the city has been burned, and the Emperor Nero has placed the blame on the followers of Jesus Christ, many of whom are scraping out an existence in what amounts to a refugee camp.
Christians are fed to the lions in Nero's "circus" and lit on fire in the streets. As Aquila (John Lynch) and his wife, Priscilla (Joanne Whalley), debate whether the Christian community should abandon Rome or stay and fight for their beliefs, the physician Luke arranges to make multiple visits to Paul, who is being held in the darkest dungeon of Rome's Mamertine Prison.
James Faulkner (Randyll Tarly on "Game of Thrones") gives the most impressive performance in the film as Paul, who is nearing the end of his days on Earth and has been physically pummeled for years, but still has fire in his eyes and faith bursting from his heart.
"The cantankerous old soul remains full of hope and conviction," says Luke of Paul. (Sometimes the characters sound more like denizens of the 21st century than Christians from 2,000 years ago. "Quit your complaining!" barks one character. Another cracks a sitcom-type joke about his friend's wife's cooking.)
Olivier Martinez, unable to disguise his French accent (everyone in the film speaks English), nevertheless does fine work as Mauritius, the jailer of Paul, who is experiencing a crisis of faith because his daughter is gravely ill, and neither sacrifices and rituals honoring the Roman gods nor Roman doctors have helped. Despite his loathing of Christians, the desperate Mauritius considers turning to the physician Luke to tend to his daughter.
At times "Paul, Apostle of Christ" gets bogged down in static scenes, with characters trading pages of dialogue as if they're in a staged work. When writer-director Andrew Hyatt pulls back the camera for medium- and long-range shots, we get a much better sense of this world, and the stakes at hand for the persecuted Christians and the Romans who carry out Nero's horrific orders.
Caviezel gives a stoic performance as the brave and selfless Luke. Lynch and Whalley are excellent as the husband and wife Christian community leaders Aquila and Priscilla. Costumes, sets, cinematography and editing are all first-rate.