A confession: This publication sent the wrong reviewer to cover The Apostle, actor-writer-director Robert Duvall’s account of a Pentecostal preacher’s spiritual redemption. Readers who have made the leap of faith to embrace a divine presence or religious creed are advised to turn to another page. Those who remain skeptical or share my conviction that religion is the stepchild of ignorance and fear may wish to continue.
Having substantially reduced my readership, I must acknowledge that Duvall, in all three of his capacities, has achieved his objectives. His slice-of-life screenplay charts the moral journey of Sonny Dewey, a spellbinding Texas minister revered by his flock. Exasperated by her husband’s admissions of philandering and his long absences on the evangelical circuit, his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) falls in love with a younger clergyman, Horace (Todd Allen), demands a divorce, and wrests control of Sonny’s ministry. Overwhelmed by the loss of his wife, two children, and congregation, Sonny flips out and violently assaults Horace. To evade arrest, he fakes a fatal automobile accident and escapes to Louisiana, where he assumes a new identity.
Sonny’s wanderings lead him to Bayou Boutte, a primarily black backwoods town, where he bonds with Brother Blackwell (John Beasley), an ailing, retired Pentecostal preacher. Blackwell allows Sonny to take over his abandoned church. Putting in double shifts as an auto mechanic and as a restaurant worker, Sonny raises enough money to refurbish the dilapidated edifice; he also obtains airtime on the local radio station to preach his hellfire-and-brimstone sermons. Wracked by guilt over his attack on Horace and the news of his beloved, hymn-singing mother’s death, he opens the One Way Road to Heaven Church. Initially, he attracts a tiny, ragtag flock, but the power of his preaching soon draws a substantial congregation and helps to unify the community. As Sonny’s ministry and reputation grow, it is only a matter of time until the Texas police discover his whereabouts and force him to answer for his crime.
Duvall has written a formidable, Oscar-wooing part for himself as a flawed but indomitable soldier of Jesus. On camera nearly every minute of the film’s two and a quarter hours, he manifests a panoply of emotionstenderness, rage, anguish, humilityculminating in a virtuosic 10-minute set piece: Sonny’s last sermon before heading off to face the music. Though focusing the spotlight on himself, he has assembled a talented ensemble of supporting players, sparked by Fawcett (far more expressive than in her hair-and-teeth heyday), Beasley (whose warm underplaying fleshes out a sketchy role), and Sling Blade’s Billy Bob Thornton, cast as a bigoted troublemaker. Barry Markowitz’s assured, artless camerawork and Linda Burton’s naturalistic production design reinforce the film’s semidocumentary flavor.
Despite The Apostle’s undeniable craftsmanship, I found sitting though it nearly unbearable. Had I not attended it as a professional obligation, I would have exited long before the final credits. I wasn’t expecting (or demanding) anything as crude as an Elmer Gantryesque exposé of evangelical corruption, but I was hardly prepared for such a shameless display of sanctimonious kitsch. To ensure that we view Sonny as the Lord’s flawed vessel and accept his ultimate salvation, the movie cravenly soft-pedals his transgressions. His infidelities are only alluded to, and he’s shown swigging the devil’s brew from a whisky bottle just prior to assaulting Horace with a baseball bat. Had Duvall risked presenting Sonny as a flagrant sinner, his redemption would carry more dramatic and moral weight. But from the outset, Sonny is clearly an angel with a dented halo, easily reparable in the almighty blacksmith’s forge.
The sequences depicting the healing power of Sonny’s Holy Roller preaching are crudely manipulative. When Thornton’s characterthe film’s sole racistturns up astride a bulldozer at a church social and threatens to level the sanctuary, Sonny, armed only with a Bible and his silver tongue, shames the infidel into an instant, teary-eyed conversion. (The scene is as laughably disingenuous as Tinkerbell’s resuscitation in Peter Pan.) And Duvall’s flamboyant, climactic call-and-response sermon, destined to be imitated in countless acting workshops, differs little from nightly harangues by television evangelists. At one point he demonstrates God’s sacrifice for man by appropriating a parishioner’s baby and asking his congregation to imagine a spike driven through the infant’s hand. Like everything else in the film, this gambit is presented without a trace of irony, as though such sadism were somehow conclusive proof of divine benevolence.
In Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy writes, “From what I have seen, I am driven to the conclusion that religion is only good for good people, and I do not mean this as a paradox, but simply as an observable fact. Only good people can afford to be religious. For the others, it is too great a temptationa temptation to the deadly sins of pride and anger, chiefly, but one might also add sloth.” I have no intention of boring readers with a history of the atrocities committed in the name of religion. One has only to open a newspaper for evidence that these monstrosities continue unabated in individual cases (last week’s women’s-clinic bombing, the sacrificial murder of a Long Island girl by her Santería-crazed mother and sister) and collectively in the religion-fueled conflicts raging on several continents.
Many moviegoers will find The Apostle’s unquestioning religiosity, a rare phenomenon in pop culture, as inspiring and uplifting as the Pope’s visit to Cuba to reclaim the Vatican’s franchise. Unrepentantly atheistic, I prefer to cast my lot with McCarthy: “…I do not trouble myself about the possibility that God may exist after all. If He exists (which seems to me more than doubtful), I am in for a bad time in the next world, but I am not going to bargain to believe in God in order to save my soul….If the kind of God exists Who would damn me for not working out a deal with Him, then that is unfortunate. I should not care to spend eternity in the company of such a person.”CP