Actor Jim Caviezel, who gained notoriety with his starring role in the 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ,” returns to the biblical genre in “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” opening March 23. Caviezel plays Luke, who risks his life to visit Paul, portrayed by “Downton Abbey” star James Faulkner, who is held captive in a Roman prison under Nero’s rule. The pair live in a world dangerous for Christians as they struggle against a hostile political situation and their own human weakness to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ and spread his message to the world.
Early Christian trials
“‘Paul, Apostle of Christ’ brings to life on screen the powerful story of a man who changed the course of history through his committed faith, yet at great cost to himself,” director and screenwriter Andrew Hyatt (“Full of Grace”) said. “The film shows what a deadly, dangerous place the Roman world was for the early Christian church, and it shows how Paul prepared the faithful to continue living out their beliefs in the face of it.”
Filming took place in Malta; other key actors include Olivier Martinez (“S.W.A.T.”) as the Roman warden Mauritius, Joanne Whalley (“A.D. The Bible Continues”) as Priscilla and John Lynch (“The Secret Garden”) as Aquila.
The goal of the actors and crew was “to create a film true to the biblical account of Paul’s life but also one that is dramatic and engaging,” producer T.J. Berden said. “The trials faced by early Christians and their faith and bravery in spite of them will amaze audiences.”
“Here’s a man, Paul, who went from being the ISIS of his day to becoming the leader of the Church community,” Berden said. “Paul shows us that no one is beyond God’s grace, that there’s always a chance.”
The film, produced by AFFIRM Films in association with Giving Films, is set in the last days of Paul’s life, where he endures brutal treatment in a dark Roman prison as he awaits execution. Christians are hated, as Nero has burned much of Rome and blamed the Christians for his deed. Luke is able to sneak into the prison to offer comfort to Paul, as well as to encourage him to tell his story to the world, which will become the Bible’s Book of Acts.
Hyatt developed “Paul, Apostle of Christ” after his first biblical story, “Full of Grace,” detailing the last days of Mary’s life, achieved success. Hyatt himself was born and raised Catholic, left the Church for seven years, and returned. “I had a Saul-Paul conversion experience myself, so his story resonates with me,” he said. “I myself have experienced God’s grace and mercy.”
Concerned that some recent biblical films lacked “scriptural accuracy and depth,” Hyatt immersed himself in Scripture as well as 30 to 40 books about the life of Paul. Among his favorites was the 2000 book by F.F. Bruce, “Paul Apostle of the Heart Set Free” (Eerdmans, $30). He wrote the script, which made its way to Jim Caviezel.
“Jim hasn’t done a biblical film since ‘Passion,’ and was vocal about not doing another,” Hyatt said. “But he saw the script and thought it treated the subject matter with authenticity and reverence, so he agreed to play Luke.”
Caviezel, he continued, wanted to bring “humanity” to Luke, as “the saints are real people, not statues with halos.”
Another actor had been cast to play Paul, but dropped out three weeks before production began. Faulkner was brought in, and he made for an ideal Paul, Hyatt said. “Unlike Jim, James is not a believer, but he wanted to get the role right. He was open to letting the Spirit work through him.”
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“Paul, Apostle of Christ”
is rated PG-13 for disturbing images and violent content, virtually all of it Roman violence against Christians, although one group of Christians decides to act in a highly un-Christian way in response to the dictums against their sect by Roman Emperor Nero.
Eric Groth, one of the executive producers, gives credit to Sony Pictures for its willingness to go out on a limb with the movie. “They stretched partnering with a Catholic organization, they stretched in the idea, they stretched in the screening schedule,” which had started a few months before its premiere, Groth said. A constant comment he said he had received from preview audiences was that the film was “imbued with Scripture without it having been read to them.”
“Paul, Apostle of Christ” is set to open March 23 on more than 2,000 screens in the United States, and will simultaneously open in at least 15 other countries.
Subtle tool for evangelization
An international crew encompassing 22 nationalities combined their talents to produce the film, using as a principle filming location a centuries-old stone fort on Malta. The local population took an interest in the production, Hyatt said, because St. Paul himself had been shipwrecked there around the year A.D. 60.
Hyatt learned much about the nascent Christian Church through his research, including the brutal violence to which Christians of the time were subjected. The film depicts some of the violence, including the burning alive of Christians. “These people lived in fear, but also displayed courage, joy and love,” Hyatt said.
“When I looked at this screenplay, I was amazed by the survival of Christianity, [that it rested] with just a couple of people,” Caviezel said.
While the film has a strong Christian message, it’s appropriate for all audiences, Hyatt said. He also sees its potential to be used as a subtle tool for evangelization.
“You may not feel comfortable talking to your co-worker about Jesus, but you may be comfortable taking them to this film,” he said.
“This film is one, to me, that goes out to the world,” Caviezel added. “People are going to watch it and say, ‘Wow, these guys were sinners just like me.’”
Jim Graves writes from California.