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PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST: Not just "faith-based," but faith-FILLED

At first, “Paul: Apostle of Christ” appears to be another entry in the recent run of faith-based films; but that common label isn’t quite fair.

“Paul” is not merely “based” on faith; rather, the movie is bathed in it, obsessed with it, driven by it -- suffused with confidence in a message that remains thoroughly counterintuitive after nearly 2000 years.

In fact, as an embodiment of such faith, the film itself is counterintuitive: Slipping in amid a slate of superheroes, thrillers, R-rated comedies and animated brouhaha, “Paul” is the quiet, ruminative story of an aging outcast awaiting execution in an ancient prison basement.

James Faulkner brings a heady blend of aged suffering, stolid nobility and gentle wisdom to the famed apostle who wrote nearly half the books in the New Testament; yet this part of Paul’s story is not found in Scripture.

Most of what we know about the apostle comes from the book of Acts. But that narrative ends somewhat abruptly, well before his death.

This film is set later, after the Great Fire of Rome, which the corrupt emperor Nero blamed on Christians. As an alleged ringleader, Paul has been arrested, and he is visited in prison by Luke, the “beloved physician” who’s gathering material to write Acts and also seeking advice for the afflicted church in Rome.

If that doesn’t sound like much of a plot -- well, it isn’t. “Paul” is somewhat slow, riding on simple, earthy dialog, a stirring portrait of marital love even through conflict (that would be Paul’s co-workers Priscilla and Aquila) and a tough but likable Roman warden who will eventually have to set aside his pagan prejudice and call on Luke to help his ailing daughter. James Caviezel -- who played Jesus in “Passion of the Christ” -- is solid as Luke, and French actor Olivier Martinez is excellent as the warden.

But “Paul’s” strongest feature is its willingness to grapple with the agony of steadfast belief in the face of persecution -- with the apparent senselessness of a faith that guarantees suffering, while urging its followers to submit to vicious rulers and not to pay back evil for evil. The story never flinches from the horrors Nero inflicted, and it doesn’t offer easy solutions; but there’s plenty of hope, especially in the dazzling coda. That final scene packs an emotional punch that is all the more surprising because it’s perfectly in keeping with the movie’s message -- and therefore it shouldn’t surprise us at all.

“Paul” is also beautifully photographed by Gerardo Madrazo, and the script from fledgling director Andrew Hyatt is peppered with Bible passages that take on extraordinary gravity in this context; the concluding passage from one of Paul’s final letters is especially effective.

A famous New Testament text declares that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In a busy movie season, this quiet little film may wind up being one of those things “not seen” -- and that would be a shame; it certainly offers assurance of things hoped for.

“Paul: Apostle of Christ,”

written & directed by Andrew Hyatt

Run time: 107 min.

* * * (out of four)

Rated PG-13 some violent content and disturbing images

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