Andrew Hyatt's “Paul, Apostle of Christ” is less a biopic of the New Testament Christian apostle than a portrait of early Christianity.

“PAUL, APOSTLE OF CHRIST” — 3 stars — James Faulkner, Jim Caviezel, Olivier Martinez, Joanne Whalley, John Lynch; PG-13 (some violent content and disturbing images); in general release

Andrew Hyatt's “Paul, Apostle of Christ” is less a biopic of the New Testament Christian apostle than a portrait of early Christianity in a time of intense persecution and an attempt to get at the heart of the faith.

The story focuses on a window of time when Paul (James Faulkner) was imprisoned in Rome, awaiting execution under order from Nero. Set in 67 A.D., the Christian faithful are under heavy persecution some three decades after the completion of Jesus Christ's ministry. Having been blamed for a tragic fire in Rome, the early Christians are regularly given public executions in the guise of sporting events, or even burned alive as human torches in the city streets.

It's in this circumstance that the apostle Luke (Jim Caviezel) arrives, hoping to gain wisdom from Paul that will give hope to local church members such as those who have been forced to hide out in the home of a married couple, Aquila (John Lynch) and Priscilla (Joanne Whalley). In the midst of the persecution, church members are fearful for their lives, and a small movement to fight back against the Roman oppressors is stirring.

Elsewhere, the Roman prefect Mauritius (Olivier Martinez) is dealing with his own issues. His young daughter is dying of a mysterious illness, and none of his efforts, including regular sacrifices to the Roman gods, is helping the situation. In addition, the trial is putting extra stress on his already strained marriage to his wife Irenica (Antonia Campbell-Hughes).

As Luke begins to make regular visits with Paul in the Mamertine Prison, penning material that will eventually become part of the New Testament, a handful of flashbacks offer glimpses of the apostle's history, including his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. But mostly the plot focuses on Luke and Paul's conversations, the predicament of the prefect and the situation at Aquila and Priscilla's home.

Audiences hoping for a thorough treatment of Paul's various missionary journeys might come away disappointed, but the film's threads do eventually build to a finish that should be satisfying for the Christian faithful. As the different characters wrestle with their individual challenges, Hyatt's film zeroes in on the pure meaning of Christianity, which as Luke puts it, is that “love is the only way.”

One of the film's greatest strengths is its visual execution, which bathes characters in dramatic light and shadow. This is done to the greatest effect with Paul and Luke in the prison, but the style resonates through the city as well, which is frequently shot at night under minimalist torch lighting.

It's also interesting to consider the perspective of the leads — converts who came to the faith in the aftermath of Christ's ministry. Their stories are key to the film's effort to paint a portrait of the early Christian church in its turmoil, and Paul and Luke's perspectives, among other elements, act as a reflection of issues modern Christians face in the present.

Faulkner gives Paul a stoic and wizened performance, and audiences who remember Caviezel from 2004's “The Passion of the Christ” will enjoy seeing the actor here as Luke. “Paul, Apostle of Christ” may not be the comprehensive portrait of the famous convert its title suggests, and it's likely that creative liberties will have been taken on the way to the big screen, but audiences should still appreciate this well-produced window on a tumultuous period of Christian history.

“Paul, Apostle of Christ” is rated PG-13 for some violent content and disturbing images; running time: 108 minutes.