[Screen It]


(2018) (Jim Caviezel, James Faulkner) (PG-13)

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Drama: With Emperor Nero persecuting Christians, a Greek physician travels to Rome to capture the last words of wisdom from one of Christ's apostles who's now imprisoned and facing execution.
It's AD 67 and following fires that have destroyed great swaths of Rome, Emperor Nero has blamed that on followers of Christ and specifically one of his apostles, Paul (JAMES FAULKNER). Formerly known as Saul of Tarsus (YORGOS KARAMIHOS) who persecuted Christians himself before having an epiphany and becoming a follower, Paul is now an old man held in a prison run by Roman prefect Mauritius Gallas (OLIVIER MARTINEZ). He's a former decorated soldier who hates this new assignment and believes Nero is bad for the empire, but nonetheless goes about his job. At least it means he's home with his family, although he's concerned about his teen daughter's worsening medical condition, something his Roman gods have yet to remedy.

In the midst of the new persecution that includes Christians being fed to the lions in the Roman circus when not being lit ablaze on streets as "Roman candles," Christian couple Priscilla (JOANNE WHALLEY) and Aquila (JOHN LYNCH) oversee a secret and hidden community of like-minded people who are simply trying to stay safe. For them, they must determine whether it's better to stay and hide or simply leave the city, while some younger people, such as Cassius (ALESSANDRO SPERDUTI) -- whose younger cousin was murdered by the Romans -- thinks they should fight back.

They're heartened by the arrival of Paul's old friend and protégé, the Greek physician Luke (JIM CAVIEZEL), who's arrived to meet with Paul and record the last of his wisdom about being Christian. With the apostle resigned to his pending execution, he speaks freely to Luke about his past life and related atrocities as well as his conversion and attempts to spread the faith.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
I'll readily admit that I'm no expert when it comes to the various religions around the world, and thus I don't know how widely the following applies to them. But one of my biggest issues with some is that a mass murderer who repents and goes through all of the necessary steps of wiping clean his slate of sin ends up on equal footing to passing through the Pearly Gates as someone who's lived nothing but an honorable and kind life.

Yes, I understand the old saying about forgiveness and that harboring ill will toward others is liking taking poison yourself and hoping the bad guy somehow keels over. It makes sense from both an emotional well-being standpoint as well as a theological one in that even sinners can be reformed and thus the ranks of the devoted can grow.

My objection is just a general rather than personal one. If said bad guy has not directly affected me in any way, I still don't think the playing field, if you will, should be leveled just because one repents and accepts God. Maybe they get a lesser sentence down below in the afterlife or end up on perpetual restroom cleaning duty up above, but not a free pass.

In any event, that's part of the subject matter that's present but not as fully explored as I would have liked to have seen in "Paul, Apostle of Christ," the second faith-based film is as many weeks with yet another coming around the bend the following weekend. With "I Can Only Imagine" surprising most everyone with its box office success, it's a question how many of these films the market can support.

But while ICOI is a present-day inspirational story, PAOC is of the Biblical origins variety. As written and directed by Andrew Hyatt, it tells the tale of the apostle Paul (James Faulkner) who's been imprisoned by the often referenced but never seen Emperor Nero for allegedly being responsible in full or in part for much of Rome burning down.

Realizing his former mentor's days are likely numbered (due to age and an execution decree already having been handed down), the Greek physician Luke (Jim Caviezel, no stranger to the faith-based genre) shows up to record his last words of wisdom and such. And that's all while Nero has his Roman soldiers persecuting Christians left and right, resulting in some hidden sanctuaries popping up, such as a fairly large one run by a married couple (Joanne Whalley and John Lynch) who, predating the Clash song, can't decide if they should stay or go.

Some want to fight back, but that goes against everything Luke and Paul believe in, with the latter having a particularly interesting insight into that. And that's because he was once known as Saul of Tarsus (played by Yorgos Karamihos in brief flashbacks) who hunted down and killed Christian followers in his earlier days before having his own (and maybe the very first) "come to Jesus" epiphany and changing his ways.

Both he and Luke have interactions with the Roman soldier turned prefect (Olivier Martinez) who runs the prison holding Paul and who's having his own crisis of faith. His teenage daughter has taken ill and offerings to the Roman gods have yet to be answered and/or take effect. Being no fan of Nero and hating this assignment, he follows orders but has an intellectual soft spot of sorts for Paul. And it's the smaller, intimate moments when the two carry on in conversation that the film is the most engaging.

Decent, but less interesting are those between Luke and Paul, mainly because they're present to tell the latter's back-story. Alas, as penned and directed here, those brief flashback moments simply don't carry the dramatic weight they should. And they -- or any other moments -- don't address beyond the superficial the reasons why Paul has his slate cleared despite the atrocities he committed.

Even so, and as happens with the interactions with Martinez's prefect, Faulkner manages to convey the weight and gravity of those past actions in completely believable, if understated and nuanced ways.

Despite featuring the most urgent plot elements, the scenes featuring the caretakers of the hidden Christian community and the decision they must make are the least successful, no doubt hurt by some dialogue that's far too on the nose and not enough directorial panache to make those sequences as gripping as they easily could and should have been.

Thanks to the smaller moments between various character pairings, "Paul, Apostle of Christ" ends up working, but with some minor (and sometimes perhaps major) tinkering, this could have been a terrific offering rather than one that's just okay. The film rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 19, 2018 / Posted March 23, 2018

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