Apostle, The (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For Robert Duvall, The Apostle was a labor of love. It is said that every man or woman has at least one story to tell; this is Duvall's. The film was in the making for over a decade, and, when no studio bought into it, Duvall put up the money himself. The actor filled nearly every role imaginable on this production - in addition to financing it, he starred in it, directed it, executive produced it, and wrote it. In his cross-country publicity tour to generate interest in the picture, he has been both eloquent and passionate when discussing what this film means to him. For Duvall, The Apostle is not just a movie, it is the movie.

A relatively simple tale about a far-from-simple character, The Apostle never falters in its portrayal of Euliss "Sonny" Dewey (Duvall) as a real, flesh-and-blood human being. Unlike many movies that deal with religion and religious figures, The Apostle does not set out to uncover corruption and hypocrisy or to attack deeply-held beliefs. It does not patronize or satirize. It is respectful without being reverential. The Apostle is a character study, and, like all motion pictures of this sort, its ultimate success depends upon how compelling the protagonist is. As essayed by Duvall, arguably one of America's ten-best living actors, Sonny is the kind of complex individual we could watch for hours on end without ever losing interest.

The film opens with a brief prologue in 1939 Texas that shows Sonny, as a boy, at a Pentecostal church service. The Apostle then fast-forwards nearly six decades. Now, Sonny is an aging preacher who spends most of his time on the road, leading revivals all across the deep South. His long-suffering wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett), grows tired of his never being home, and wants a divorce. The already-uncomfortable situation is further exacerbated when Jessie and her lover, a young minister named Horace (Todd Allen), use church by-laws to steal Sonny's congregation away from him. In a moment of jealous rage, Sonny attacks Horace, and the result of that confrontation forces him to flee his home state and change his identity. Bearing the name and title of "The Apostle E.F.", he soon re-surfaces in a small bayou community in Louisiana with the intention of starting a Pentecostal ministry. His enthusiasm is so great that a respected, local black pastor (John Beasley) agrees to help him.

Like many flawed heroes, Sonny is a good man who is haunted by one tragic mistake. His entire life becomes devoted to redemption and atonement. He cannot take back what he did, but he is determined to act in a manner that will bring good into the lives of everyone he meets. Sonny has moments of weakness, but his sincerity never wavers, even when his ministry flourishes and the temptation for self-aggrandizement grows. He is a powerful, charismatic figure with a real gift for preaching. Watching Sonny lead revivals, it's easy to understand the appeal of an energetic preacher, and how some of the most popular achieve a status not unlike that of a rock star.

It is a testimony to Duvall's reputation in the business that he was able to gather such an impressive cast for a low-budget, low-profile motion picture. In addition to Duvall, key roles are filled by Farrah Fawcett, Miranda Richardson (as Toosie, a woman who is drawn to Sonny's magnetic personality), country star June Carter Cash (as Sonny's mother), John Beasley, and Billy Bob Thornton (as a racist troublemaker). These five actors, not to mention the rest of the troupe, are in top form, but none steals the spotlight from Duvall, who is truly at the height of his powers as Sonny. In his long and distinguished career, only his Oscar-winning performance in 1983's Tender Mercies was this raw. Duvall becomes Sonny. The energy and passion of a preacher are all present.

Duvall has devoted a great deal of time and effort into getting the details right. To enhance The Apostle's verisimilitude, he relied primarily on non-professional church-goers and evangelists (rather than experienced actors) in supporting roles. For the picture's style, he admits to being inspired by the near-documentary quality of Ken Loach's films. As a result, The Apostle possesses a truer and more intimate feel than it would have with slick camerawork. Warts and all, Sonny's character shines through clearly as he struggles to find a path that has meaning. The Apostle is not the kind of movie that provokes a profound change in the viewer, but it offers a balanced portrait of a unique personality. Sonny is not easily forgotten and, when the Oscar nominations are announced, it's possible that Duvall won't be, either.

Apostle, The (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 2:12
U.S. Release Date: 1997-12-19
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1