There are elements of both films in The Final Inquiry starring Dolph Lundgren and Monica Cruz - two actors who, for very different reasons, it's best not to cross in case you ever met them in person. Like Gladiator the action starts in Germania as a noble Roman soldier (Titus Valerius Taurus) leads his troops into victory against the local scraggy-blond Barbarians. There's a dying and noble emperor, double dealing enemies, and a muscular sidekick all crammed in to a whistle-stop tour of the Roman Empire.The film's link to The Passion is more direct. Set just a few months after the death of Jesus, Emperor Tiberius sends Titus to get to the bottom of what exactly happened on the day when, all over the empire, the sky clouded over. So Titus heads to Jerusalem where he talks with various characters who crop up in the gospels.
The continuity with The Passion is further enhanced by Hristo Shopov reprising his role as Pontius Pilate. Much has changed for Pilate over the last few months - he's gained a few pounds, slipped into something more comfortable and learnt to speak English. But there's also some discontinuity as well. Christo Jivkov played John in The Passion, but here he appears as St. Stephen.
Titus is joined on his mission by an enslaved German called Brixos, played by Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren largely sticks to what he does best - roaring and swinging his axe around as he watches Titus's back. Meanwhile Titus also sparks up a friendship with Tabitha, a beautiful Jewish Christian.If all that sounds rather cliché-ridden, then, this is probably isn't the film for you. From the opening title sequence when a group of galloping Roman soldiers come to a halt just to hear Titus say "Forwards" and ride on; through to Tiberius's informant just managing to squeeze out the last vital bit of information before he dies; through to the slave who stays on as his master's friend even though he has just been freed, there are clichés aplenty.
However, clichés aside, the film is actually fairly watchable. There's enough interest in the first half of the film as Titus turns detective and tries to get to the bottom of the story, and there's sufficient chemistry between him and Tabitha (Cruz) to make the love story believable. And the film's use of flashbacks to tell the story of Jesus through Titus's eyes is an interesting approach to the material. It reflects the situation we find ourselves in today unable to meet Jesus face to face we have to put together the facts about him from the various pieces of evidence.
It's also interesting to see a pre-conversion Saul of Tarsus unashamedly played as the bad guy. Usually films that deal with Paul at this stage of his life portray him as a sort of hero in waiting. He may be misguided, and a little hotheaded, but generally he's noble in his own sort of way. Here, however, he lays into the already prostrate Stephen with such relish that it's easy to see why it required nothing less than a vision of the risen Jesus to cause him to convert. The portrayal of Peter (below) is also unconventional, although in this case it's less satisfying as Peter is shown as still living in Galilee.Overall though, the history's not too bad. There's no reason to believe that the sky turned black as far away as Capri, of course, or that if it did Tiberius would somehow link it to the death of Jesus. But otherwise it is true that Tiberius retired to Capri, where he did become somewhat reclusive, and that, as a result, his people held him in fairly low regard. The film does view him through somewhat rose-tinted spectacles though. It's no surprise when it turns out that the reasonably unhistorical reason for his final voyage to Rome is in order to convert the empire to Christianity. Unsurprisingly when his heir (Caligula) finds out about his uncle's plans, the film reverts back to more widely accepted historical territory.
By then, the elements that made the earlier parts of Final Inquiry work have long since been suffocated by the film's underlying agenda. Attempting to demonstrate the rationality of Christian belief, the second half of the film resorts to far fetched storylines. For example, at one point Caiaphas, Saul and Pilate attempt to persuade Titus that the resurrections of both Lazarus and Jesus were faked by poisoning him.
So overall, Final Inquiry is a mixed bag. Whilst it's never quite as bad as it could have been, a relatively promising start deteriorates rapidly as the story heads towards it's conclusion. The evidence Titus Valerius Taurus may have been enough to convince him, but it's unlikely to cause many people to seriously reconsider their previous conclusions.