Title: The Apostle
Release Date: 1997
Length: 134 minutes
Director: Robert Duvall
Starring: Robert Duvall, Todd Allen, Paul Bagget
Robert Duvall is a great actor. No one would probably argue that point. Turns out he can direct pretty well too, but what really sets this movie apart is the writing. I’m sure I won’t do this one justice, but there’s no way I could leave it off this list. I myself am not a part of the Pentecostal/Holiness church tradition, but I am familiar with small-town, Southern Christianity in a general way since one side of my family comes out of that. This is the most honest film portrayal I’ve ever seen of how that aspect of Southern life functions.
Duvall plays Sonny, a Pentecostal preacher who has a church in the Dallas area. His mother (played by June Carter Cash in a lovely small part), wife, and two children are all part of and deeply invested in their religious life. The comfortable, everyday, constant companionship of Christianity is intimately familiar to me even if the expression is more wild than it is when I visit family.
We quickly learn that Sonny has a passion not only for his local congregation, but also for travelling to evangelize and preach in other churches, at revivals, and other religious events. This creates tension and stress on his marriage, and we learn that his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) has been having an affair. Things begin to come to a head not when Sonny learns of it, in fact he’s stepped out on his wife before too and is not really in a position to throw stones, but rather when his wife tells him that she wants a divorce.
She rejects his attempts at reconciliation and pronounces the end with finality. Hard on the heels of this revelation, some of Sonny’s church members tell him that his wife has persuaded a majority of the congregation to invoke the bylaws under which the church was organized as a non-profit in Texas to remove him from formal leadership. Having lost wife, church, vocation, and fearing that his children will also be taken away Sonny lashes out in desperation against the other man: another minister in his church.
After crossing the line into violent criminality, Sonny goes on the run. He periodically calls one loyal friend and church member collect to learn how things are in his absence. He mourns the bridges he burned between himself and his wife, his children, and his mother. Despite this, despite belated remorse, Sonny decides to do the only thing he knows how to do. He prays for guidance and finds his way to a small town in Louisiana where he plants a Pentecostal church.
He can’t run forever, but can he still do good? Can he balance the scales? As I said, this film is honest. It is not what I would call orthodox, but it is true to the mindset of the characters it portrays and their religious views. This particular strain of Christianity often has leaders that struggle to control their passions; unsurprising in a denomination that so often gives free rein to the emotions in worship. On the other hand, many of its members are deeply sincere in their belief and, though their theology is often shallow, it is not uncommon for it to change lives for the better.
Billy Bob Thornton and Walton Goggins have small parts. I think more time would have been profitably spent developing Goggins’ Sam and cutting down the time given to Thornton’s troublemaker, their respective fame at the time (Thornton was fresh off his Oscar win for Sling Blade) makes it unsurprising. The strongest supporting actors in this movie, however, weren’t even actors. Duvall chose to cast regular folks from Pentecostal churches for many of the small roles of church members and the worship services are incredibly lifelike as a result. The acting is often so good because, well, I don’t think most of them were acting.
Duvall deserves enormous credit for writing a film that so honestly and powerfully shows a world so foreign to so much of the world that makes films. Plot aside (which is a big thing to set aside, it’s very good) this is an astounding work of art that succeeds in beautifully capturing and portraying a very distinct, interesting, and to most unfamiliar, time and place.